I first met Mike Lazaridis, the retired co-CEO and founder of Research in Motion (RIM), in 1991 when I was a rogue marketing manager at Ericsson desperately searching for wireless email software to marry with the world’s first portable wireless data modem, which we were preparing to launch that next year. Cell phones were analog back then, with no capacity for text messaging much less a data channel. Ericsson was intent on chasing taxi dispatchers and utility service vehicles, but those of us who came of age with the PC industry knew that the liberating ingredient missing from laptop and palmtop computers was mobile data capability.
And so, we improvised. We lashed together our walkie talkie-sized 8 Kbps wireless modem with an HP-95 palmtop computer, and set out to convince road warriors of the roaring 90s to climb aboard our vision of the future. Little did we know that the conductor of that train would be a soft spoken Canadian engineer whose uncanny ability to stuff two pounds of radio gear in a 10-ounce bag would launch a revolution that is still reverberating around the planet.
The world’s first commercially available wireless email product—the great, great granddaddy of today’s BlackBerry Q10—was a pretty kuldgy affair, pictured above in all its glory. And it almost didn’t happen. If it weren’t for a $50,000 loan that I finagled out of my boss, the launch of the “Viking Express” wireless email package at Demo ’92 would have been a bust. That loan allowed Mike and his merry band to cobble together the palmtop client software necessary to connect with the RadioMail server, another marvel of its day, running in the bedroom closet of an eccentric Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Geoff Goodfellow.
Looking back on those days as I fondle the BlackBerry Q10 I bought yesterday, enjoying a BBM video chat with the now silver-haired Lazaridis, two decades of the most amazing run in telecommunications history flashes before our eyes. Through it all, the constancy of Mike’s vision never stopped amazing me, along with the ability of the company he built to deliver an outstanding competitive product in a market now dominated by an all-devouring Korean giant and an iconic American iCult.
Mike, I can’t believe the incredible sound fidelity of this call. Having spent most of our careers watching the industry spiral down from toll quality to “Can you hear me now?” this is quite a change.
“Yes, it’s time to reclaim the high ground for voice quality. One of the best outcomes of RIM buying QNX and making it part of the BB10 operating system is the powerful voice codecs we can use. Sure, it eats more bandwidth than a regular cellphone call. But with 4G LTE that’s no longer in short supply.”
You’ve always religiously defended the centrality of the keyboard, even as the iPhone took off. Why?
“When we first put a tiny keyboard on a handheld it was considered a breakthrough. The idea was to make it small enough to not only type with your thumbs but do it without looking. You can’t do that on a touch screen. Like a touch typists using a full keyboard, BlackBerry users rely on muscle memory as well as tactile cues to support fast and accurate input.”
Yeah, whenever an iPhone user gives me grief I just challenge them to a quick brown fox speed contest. That usually shuts them up.
“We obsessed for over a decade to perfect the thumb keyboard. The Q10 is the best keyboard we’ve ever made. It’s the sculpted keys and the frets that make it work.”
“Absolutely. We introduced frets on the first Bold 9000. It’s like playing a musical instrument. Once you learn it, it becomes reflexive. The leather backing also gives the device the feel of a high quality camera. The idea was to make the BlackBerry a professional instrument that people could use to both capture the moment and express themselves.”
From the click wheel on RIM’s first two-way pagers to the pearl to the thumb pad, BlackBerries have always had a novel control mechanism. Are you nervous about moving all the controls to the touch screen? Losing the control keys and having to learn a new set of control gestures has been the hardest part of adjusting to this new Q10.
“Touch screens offer the benefit of providing the entire screen as a selection point. The problem is that you can’t easily separate navigation from selection. With a mouse we never think about that, but the two are discrete. When you have both on top of each other it gets more complex. We are working hard to perfect this as it is the ultimate challenge of a touch screen based device.”
In a world once completely dominated by email, you always gave equal time to direct user-to-user messaging, long before text messaging came to cell phones. Why?
“The person-to-person experience, which evolved into BBM, allows communications in a more relaxed environment. Users have always found value in this. As for text messaging, I never liked the 140-character limit. PIN-to-PIN started out at 2,000 characters and grew over time. Making it instantaneous turns it into a conversation. The receipt confirmation also adds confidence. As consumer applications became more important, this got more popular.”
Given how fashion conscious the industry has become, how do you explain BlackBerry loyalty?
“I’ve encountered BlackBerry loyalists all over the world. We grew up together sharing an experience that changed our lives. Along the way we spent so much time creating muscle memory in the use of the device that it became second nature, and people didn’t want to switch. Especially for those of us who write as much as we read. We catered to a special clientele that grew. The BlackBerry will always have its fans. There is something about owning a classic product that appeals to people. It rarely goes away in any product category.”
Has the iPhone become good enough for professionals to make the BlackBerry unnecessary?
“Everybody has their own personal tastes. With the Z10 and the Q10 we can appeal to a much wider range of tastes, without sacrificing professional needs. This makes RIM unique. The market is huge, like the car market, and there is plenty of room. This is not a winner-take-all business.”
Give us a vision for the personal communicator of the year 2033.
“In 2033 we will be carrying around devices run by quantum processors loaded with quantum sensors. You will have so much power at your fingertips that you will be able to have comprehensive verbal conversations with your device, and it will talk back to you. And unlike current efforts, it will be good enough to fool you into thinking you are talking to a person. The sensors will be aware of you and your surroundings, monitoring your bodily conditions and the environment around you. Think of the tricorder and the medical scanners on Star Trek.”
“I have no idea. I’m reminded of speculations about uses for the transistor when it was first invented. They thought that perhaps it would have some use in hearing aids, never imaging the personal computer and communications revolution. Quantum computers are no longer an if—they are a when—but no one knows what all this power will unleash. That’s why I founded the Perimeter Institute in 1999, the Institute for Quantum Computing in 2002, and my new venture fund, Quantum Valley Investments, earlier this year.”
Hey, Mike, aren’t you getting a little old to start another career?
“RIM was a 20-year obsession trying to make mobile communications work. I never appreciated how deeply immersed I was until I had a chance to look back from the sidelines. I am really enjoying life now. Quantum has been my hobby for quite a while, and last time I got obsessed with a hobby it turned into career. Besides, who says I’m old!”