Why BlackBerry failed



To be honest, I really didn’t want to do another BlackBerry-related post. It just doesn’t feel like something that interests me anymore. But today I decided to do one anyways for several reasons:

  • I’ve been a long-time BlackBerry user and author of their academic textbooks - as a result, I know their technology inside-out, and have worked closely with the organization.

  • I have lived and taught computer science in the K-W region for the past 15 years, so many of my friends and past students have worked for (or still work for) RIM.

  • I’ve watched RIM grow to a large company and shrink to where they are now over the years, and have a good grasp of why they were successful, and why they no longer are.

  • Others who want to understand why RIM failed may benefit from my “big picture” perspective and knowledge.

Canadian companies are not known for doing well in the big tech world (we have plenty of smaller players that are successful though). We’ve really only had two big tech companies: Nortel and RIM. Both got really big and bureaucratic, then ran into trouble. They didn’t think like Silicon Valley - they valued corporate brand more than people and ideas, and when they achieved success, they rode it with big egos thinking that they were too big to be taken down.

A friend of mine that I went to UW with back in the early 1990s actually got a string of jobs in Silicon Valley right after he graduated (he didn’t even come back for convocation). About 2007, he was aggressively headhunted by RIM and ended up taking the offer and moving back to Waterloo. We went out for coffee the day he got off the plane and it was great - he said he was looking forward to be back in Canada. Two months later, he calls me up and says that he’s going back to California and asked me if I wanted to go for coffee one last time beforehand. So I did, and I specifically asked him what happened. He said it was a horrible decision from the start - the impression he got from the headhunter was that RIM was just like Silicon Valley only in Canada…but he quickly realized that they are nothing like it. Instead of the relaxed, friendly, idea-driven and productive culture of Silicon Valley, RIM was like working for a bunch of suits - you were a cog in a wheel and nothing more. He said he’s never felt that oppressed in his life, and he just couldn’t take it anymore. This is a guy who has worked for many Silicon Valley companies, including both Google and Apple.

I sympathized…after all, I’ve worked for Silicon Valley companies in the 1990s, and both know and love the culture. I ended up buying some of the stuff he couldn’t take on the plane with him. The last time I talked to him was May 2012 and he was pretty happy (and busy).

In 2008, I became heavily exposed with RIM because I started writing their academic courseware. I saw first hand why my friend couldn’t take more than 2 months working there. The first thing I noticed were the big egos (we are RIM, who the hell are you?). Then I noticed the bureaucracy (everything took forever to get done, and nobody had any real power to make decisions). Then I noticed the arrogance and culture. Ever had someone scream at you because you gave them friendly feedback about the number of spelling typos in their stuff, and then threaten you because you signed an NDA with them? I did. Ever had someone threaten to ditch a corporate deal because they didn’t like the personal blog post you wrote that gave a book about BlackBerry a positive review? I did. Ever been heavily chastised because you pointed out that a whole chapter of their courseware was completely technically incorrect? I did. I could go on for hours.

Keep in mind that I was an avid BlackBerry user at the time that loved their technology…but my opinions about the company itself were a whole different ballgame.

I remember coming out of a meeting one time and telling our CEO that I was shocked that they can exist in the tech world, and that they’re going to suffer when other players heat up the market space because they won’t be able to adapt - they weren’t Silicon Valley. And our CEO remembered me saying that several years later too ;-)

So what happened to RIM since that time? Apple and Google ate their cake, and all RIM could do was watch them do it…because they couldn’t adapt. By 2011, they were years behind the competition and had no idea why. They didn’t get the notion that the industry has evolved. When RIM entered the market, they had a killer device on their hands - something that allowed you to send and receive secure emails and texts using a small mobile device. But by 2007, we had the ability to carry portable touchscreen computers with us to do the same thing (thanks to Apple). And why do you buy a computer? To run apps! It was an explosion of functionality. And almost overnight, consumer needs for mobile devices started driving business needs. RIM never got that until BlackBerry 10 in 2013, and by that time it was too late. If you are an app developer, why would you make apps for BlackBerry 10 when 90% of the market uses Google Android and Apple iOS? Sad, really.

It’s also important to note that the media had a part to play too. Since 2011, their outages, layoffs, and stock market troubles definitely made companies and individuals rethink buying a BlackBerry. I’m sure that the additional bad press didn’t help either - such as the two drunken unruly RIM executives who ended up grounding a plane, or Lazaridis’ refusal to continue an interview when given a difficult question, and so on.

So, in short, RIM and BlackBerry failed because:

  • They got big and grew an ego.

  • That ego combined with their bureaucracy and anti-Silicon Valley culture prevented them from understanding and adapting when Apple and Google introduced market-changing technologies.

  • Their problems were accelerated by bad press (and the associated customer fallout).