Mike Lazaridis was at home on his treadmill and watching television when he first saw the Apple iPhone in early 2007. There were a few things he didn’t understand about the product. So, that summer, he pried one open to look inside and was shocked. It was like Apple had stuffed a Mac computer into a cellphone, he thought.
To Mr. Lazaridis, a life-long tinkerer who had built an oscilloscope and computer while in high school, the iPhone was a device that broke all the rules. The operating system alone took up 700 megabytes of memory, and the device used two processors. The entire BlackBerry ran on one processor and used 32 MB. Unlike the BlackBerry, the iPhone had a fully Internet-capable browser. That meant it would strain the networks of wireless companies like AT&T Inc., something those carriers hadn’t previously allowed. RIM by contrast used a rudimentary browser that limited data usage.
“I said, ‘How did they get AT&T to allow [that]?’ Mr. Lazaridis recalled in the interview at his Waterloo office. “ ‘It’s going to collapse the network.’ And in fact, some time later it did.”
Publicly, Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie belittled the iPhone and its shortcomings, including its short battery life, weaker security and initial lack of e-mail. That earned them a reputation for being cocky and, eventually, out of touch. “That’s marketing,” Mr. Lazaridis explained. “You position your strengths against their weaknesses.”
Internally, he had a very different message. “If that thing catches on, we’re competing with a Mac, not a Nokia,” he recalled telling his staff.
RIM soon earned a chance to show up its new rival. RIM’s early smartphones had been a hit for Verizon Wireless, one of the biggest U.S. wireless players. Frozen out of the iPhone – Apple had signed an exclusive deal with AT&T – Verizon executives approached RIM in June, 2007, and asked if it could develop “an iPhone killer.” The product would need to have a touchscreen with no physical keyboard. Verizon would back the U.S. launch with a massive marketing campaign.
For 20 years, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis operated in tandem, building an increasingly successful partnership that allowed each other’s strengths to flourish.
They shared an office in their early years, even possessing each other’s voice mail passwords.
As RIM grew, they worked in separate buildings but spoke several times a day. “They had a relationship I wish I had with my wife,” one mid-level executive said.
But they had different personalities and their lives seldom intersected outside the office. They have barely spoken since leaving the company.
For Mr. Lazaridis, science was both a job and a pastime. Mr. Balsillie was brash, competitive and athletic, and wore his reputation for being aggressive, even bullying in meetings, as a badge of honour. If anything, he viewed that outward toughness as a job requirement, not unlike tech CEOs such as Steve Ballmer at Microsoft Corp. or Apple’s Steve Jobs. “Show me how else you build a $20-billion company,” he once confided to a colleague. “If I was Mr. Easy-going, they would kill BlackBerry.”
The two rarely disagreed on key strategic moves – until their last year together. Mr. Lazaridis believed BlackBerry 10 would herald RIM’s renaissance. Mr. Balsillie wasn’t so sure.
As for Mr. Lazaridis, he has not given up on the enterprise he founded 29 years ago. He is still a minority shareholder in BlackBerry, and he believes the BlackBerry story is not over. “Many companies go through cycles. Intel experienced it, IBM experienced it, Apple experienced it. Our job was to reinvent ourselves, which we all believed BB10 would do,” he said. “The fact that a Canadian company was able to compete in that space with two of the largest tech companies in the world is a big deal. People counted IBM, Apple and other companies out only to be proven wrong. I am rooting that they are wrong on BlackBerry as well.”
With reports from Tara Perkins, Omar El Akkad and Iain Marlow