Getting Desperate? While Jim Balsillie Looks forward, John Chen Looks Pathetic

They say every leader sets a tone.

Well, when it comes to tone, there couldn’t be a starker difference between former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie and the company’s current boss, John Chen.

Last week, in a long essay published by The Globe and Mail, Balsillie explored why, as he put it, “Canada isn’t equipped for global competition.” He argued that while Canadian entrepreneurs are great innovators, this country has a “terrible record of commercializing its ideas.”

Balsillie suggests that a number of factors are to blame – government policies that serve American, rather than Canadian, interests; a lack of incentives to encourage universities to commercialize ideas; and a need for greater cooperation between the tech sector and government.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Balsillie’s conclusions, the piece was a forward-thinking look at an important and growing issue.

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At the same time, Chen was doing something very different. He was demanding an apology from a provincial politician who wants to bring a different brand of phone to work.

The Ontario government has a BlackBerry-only policy for legislators and their staffs but one Member of the Provincial Parliament, Shafiq Qaadri, told the legislature he’d like them to have the option to bring an iPhone or Android device.

That didn’t sit well with Chen who responded with a bizarre blog post. In it, Chen feigned offence at Qaadri’s choice of words.

Qaadri had said that while the BlackBerry-only policy had been a “valiant effort to buy Canadian” it was now “handicapping, retarding and penalizing MPPs, their staff and indeed all members of the legislative community.” Chen claimed those were “derogatory references to people with disabilities.”

Of course, Chen has it backwards.

The reason people with disabilities find words like “handicapped” and “retarded” offensive is because those words mean exactly what Qaadri was saying. A handicap is literally defined as something that makes progress or success difficult. “To retard” is literally to delay or hold back.

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You know what is actually offensive? Claiming that Qaadri’s comments could even be construed as a reference to people with disabilities.

Considering that Chen has an Ivy League education and, one would assume, a communications staff, it’s hard to believe he really took offence. Rather, it seems like a transparent ploy, a pathetic act that shows how desperate BlackBerry has become.

It’s not hard to see why Chen would be so desperate to hold on to hardware customers like those in the Ontario government. Last week, RBC Capital Markets cut its hardware sales forecast for BlackBerry in half.

Analysts at the investment bank now expect BlackBerry to sell 700,000 Classic and Passport phones in the over the next few months, that down from a previous forecast of 1.6 million. That was followed this weekend by news that the company plans to cut an unspecified number of jobs worldwide.

The move comes nine months after Chen said that the company was finished with job cuts.

At one time the BlackBerry employed 20,000 people. After that last round of cuts, it was down to 7,000.

While shares in the company fell slightly on Monday, they were still up 30 cents over Thursday, when BlackBerry announced a plan to buy-back 12 million of them.