If you read this review on your smartphone, you are doing so thanks to the brilliance of Larry Page and Steve Jobs. One is responsible for the Android platform, the other one for the iPhone. But until a few years ago, you would have thanked two different people for your mobile phone: Mark Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie.
Who are these two, you might ask? Mike Lazaridis, an electronic engineer, founded BlackBerry, formerly Research in Motion, above a bagel shop Waterloo, Ontario, in 1984. When Jim Balsillie, a temperamental manager, joined forces with Lazaridis, the company took off. Losing the Signal is the story of a partnership that changed mobile computing forever, as well as a company that dominated its segment once and is now close to extinction. More importantly, though, the book is about a relationship that experienced the sudden rise of BlackBerry and the most dramatic reversal of fortune in the digital age.
Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, reporters at Canada’s Globe and Mail, have spent hours talking to the partnership behind BlackBerry. Its their reporting that makes the book stand out from other generic business books. At its launch in 1984, RIM (Research in Motion) made crude device to display advertising text on TV screens. By 1988, the company developed communications software that worked with Mobitex, a primitive wireless system. Those initial limitations taught the BlackBerry engineers to become adept at dealing with limits and constraints, leading to the launch of Leapfrog, a pager that could send and receive Internet e-mail messages.
RIM changed the name to their devices to BlackBerry in 1999, honoring the knobby keyboards, which resembled the buds of the black fruit. By 2005, BlackBerry was the standard of the smartphone industry. Almost every company used them: Even the federal government adopted an ultra-secure version. RIM owned the market together with Nokia.
And then the iPhone happened. The BlackBerry’s demise was not immediate. It took mainstream customers almost two years to fall out of love with BlackBerry and start a new relationship with Apple. But by 2010, even the most ardent corporate fans started to switch over.
The authors recount RIM’s desperate attempts to regroup and innovate (remember the Storm or the Playbook?) but nothing short of a complete reinvention of their platform could have saved them. They delivered a brilliant upgrade to their software in 2013. But they were years too late — too late to understand the forming touchscreen market, too late to understand the changing desires of their customers and too late to offer better apps and software.
RIM never recovered. You know how the story ends. Unless you are reading this review on a BlackBerry.