Losing the Signal: An In-depth Q+A with the Authors of RIM/BlackBerry Saga

The other night, I watched my two-year-old daughter play with the toy phone handset from her Fisher-Price activity table.

She wasn’t talking on it. She was typing with her thumbs.

This in itself was no surprise; thumb-typing is what she sees grownups do most often with their phones.

What struck me, having just finished reading an advance copy of Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry, was the enormity of the cultural impact that a once-tiny upstart named Research In Motion (RIM) had made on the world, from its base just a couple of kilometres from our house.

No one thumb-typed until Mike Lazaridis made it technically feasible, and until his co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, sold us on the concept. Since then, people have bought well over a billion smartphones of all kinds.

By now, we all know that BlackBerry – known as RIM for the first 29 years of its existence – makes only a tiny fraction of the smartphones sold today; that the company fell far and fell fast from its once-untouchable perch atop the market it created.

Many of us, especially in Waterloo Region, also know something of how it all happened – or at least, we like to think we do.

Unless you’re among the few who worked in the upper reaches of RIM’s corporate structure, you can expect that feeling to change when you crack the cover on Losing the Signal, which goes on sale today.

Its authors, Globe and Mail business reporters Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, have built a riveting chronicle of the company’s long history atop a base of deep research and untold numbers of interviews with many key players – from telecom carriers to ex-board members to top former executives, including “dozens” of hours spent one-on-one with Lazaridis and Balsillie.

(Full disclosure: I was a colleague of McNish at the Globe and Mail when I worked there from 2003-2011; Silcoff joined the Globe in 2012).

By turns entertaining and informative, unflinchingly critical and sympathetic, this book is as thorough and balanced an account as you can expect from two people who didn’t work there – especially a pair of journalists who, in earlier circumstances, would have faced strong resistance from RIM execs in reporting this story.

The story not only does justice to the magnitude of RIM’s achievements over time, many of which were overshadowed in the blow-by-blow coverage of the company’s struggle to compete with smartphones running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software; it also highlights lessons – and there are more than a few – to be learned from its tactical missteps, weak board oversight and unusual co-CEO management structure.

While Lazaridis and Balsillie seemed an unstoppable duo on RIM’s way up, everything changed in the mid-2000s, according to McNish and Silcoff, when a patent lawsuit followed by a stock-options backdating controversy drove a personal wedge between the two chiefs.

“That literally knocked the wind out of my sails,” Lazaridis tells the authors.

The falling-out left RIM a company divided just when it needed unity the most: as Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to the world in 2007. The internal corporate chasm at RIM only grew from there, hindering the company’s ability to meet competitive threats quickly in an industry that waits for no one.

For all the complexity of the RIM/BlackBerry saga, McNish and Silcoff navigate the twists and turns in a commanding and readable way. Losing the Signal is a quick read, but that’s likely due more to its clear and compelling content than its compact 250-page length.

To find out more about the story behind the book, I interviewed McNish and Silcoff by phone last Friday. What follows here is a lightly edited transcript of our 45-minute conversation.

Read the complete interview on Communitech.