Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mr BlackBerry sends a message

Sep 21st 2006
From The Economist print edition

Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of the firm behind the BlackBerry, is a passionate advocate of fundamental scientific research

SOME pocket-sized electronic gadgets are merely successful, but an exalted few become household names. The Walkman, Game Boy and iPod are examples from the consumer market; and in the business world, the BlackBerry has attained a similar iconic status. During meetings and in airport lounges, managers can be seen furtively tapping out messages on this nifty device, which keeps them constantly updated with their office e-mail anywhere they can get a wireless signal. So compulsive is such “push e-mail� that the term “CrackBerry� has been coined to describe the addiction.

Yet just a decade ago, the whole idea that adults would happily type e-mails using a keyboard the size of a credit card seemed absurd. It was late one night in 1997, while sitting in his basement, that Mike Lazaridis suddenly glimpsed the future. In a paper he drafted on the spur of the moment, entitled “Success Lies in Paradox�, he asked, “When is a tiny keyboard more efficient than a large one?� The answer to his riddle: when you use your thumbs. Mr Lazaridis e-mailed his vision of a new device to colleagues at Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario, that he had co-founded in 1984 with Douglas Fregin, a childhood friend. A year later the BlackBerry was born.

Fortune favours the well-prepared mind, and for Mr Lazaridis, the preparation started at school, where he loved to tinker with electronics and ham radios. In a prophetic moment, an electronics workshop teacher told him that the person who combined computers with wireless would be on to something big. Of course, the BlackBerry is not unique in achieving that combination. Rather, it relies on a series of innovations, such as the keyboard optimised for “thumbing�, a clickable scroll wheel and menus pared down as much as possible—all of which are designed to please busy executives.

“We take a very measured, scientific approach to what we do—we're not just chasing what others have,� says Mr Lazaridis. His role at RIM, where he is co-chief executive, is to oversee the company's technology development; Jim Balsillie, a Harvard MBA who joined the company in 1992, handles the financial side of the business.

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