Ultimate Irony: Could Balsillie and Lazaridis save Blackberry?

A month or so ago The Globe and Mail (my employer) published an epic behind-the-scenes story on the downward spiral of Canada’s tech giant. The article details two huge strategic decisions the company made in 2012 which significantly influenced where the company is today.

Co-founder and former CEO Mike Lazaridis has alwanys been a fan of the physical keyboard. It’s what always set Blackberry apart and it’s what the empire was built on. But Lazaridis was no longer in charge, and the company was going all-in with the Z-10, an all touchscreen device. Lazaridis argued against it in a boardroom showdown detailed in the Globe article. But physical keyboards were no longer coin of the realm in the smartphone world, according to Blackberry’s new senior management. They were going to take on Apple and Samsung, and prevail.

Earlier that same year, the other co-founder Jim Balsille had departed as co-CEO over the board’s refusal to back Balsille’s ambitious plan to license Blackberry’s popular BBM software to carriers. Balsillie’s plan would see BBM available as pre-installed replacement for SMS messaging on any new iPhone and Android handsets they sold. Lazaridis didn’t back Balsillie’s plan, and neither did CEO Thorsten Heins. Balsillie quit.

Jumping ahead to November 2013, it’s hard to see how, had Blackberry backed Lazaridis and Balsillie’s plans, the company could be worse off today. Building great handsets is hard, but building great software for handsets – including a ground-up operating system, is really, really hard. And if you’re going up against Apple and Google – well.

I know lots of people who still use Blackberrys, and it’s for the simple reason that they prefer the physical keyboard. Give them reliable email and a reasonable web browser and that’s all they need. I think Lazaridis was right on this one. Focus on making the best damn smartphone with a physical keyboard and you will always maintain a loyal customer base, customers for whom an iPnone or Android handset is a non-starter.

And for Balsillie’s plan? Well in late October (2013) Blackberry eventually did release BBM for iPhone and Android. As of this writing, one week in, the software has been downloaded 20 million times, which immediately increased their global user base by 30%.

Blackberry’s troubles clearly run deeper than these two issues. But with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the strategies of the ousted co-CEOs were at least as good as anyone elses. Perhaps the fatal mistake they shared was in not backing each other. And that would be the saddest irony of all.