Thirty years ago, Apple was already a landmark technology company. Its second offering, the Apple II personal computer, sold 210,000 units in 1980, up from just 2,500 units three years earlier. Six million of the machines would be bought during an impressive 16-year production run. It was a product that defi ned an industry, but Steve Jobs wanted something even better. He sought, as author Walter Isaacson notes in his recent Jobs biography, to “make a dent in the universe.” The Apple III was not the product to do it. Thanks to a design flaw, the connections between its circuit boards frequently failed. It was a lemon. But Jobs persevered and, with inventions like the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, ultimately left the universe pockmarked.
It is admittedly a wide leap between Apple in 1980 and Research In Motion today. For all of their similarities—mercurial executives, an obsession with engineering—the companies sit at different points in their development, with vastly diff erent balance sheets and market conditions. But the Apple III’s sad tale is a useful parable when considering RIM’s current tribulations. It shows that even companies perceived as invulnerable can blunder.
RIM has suffered through several rough years, no doubt. Its falling market share and the lacklustre launch of the PlayBook tablet are signifi ant setbacks. Most worrisome is the congenital inability of RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie to publicly recognize something is amiss. That’s just one of the problems examined by senior writer Joe Castaldo’s investigation into the crisis at RIM. Working from numerous in-depth interviews with former employees, Castaldo offers an insider’s perspective on the ongoing tumult. It’s an essential read for anyone who’s watched the former juggernaut falter and wondered: “What the heck happened to those guys?”
The piece is a clear-eyed examination of Canada’s most important technology company. It relies on reporting, not opinion, to make its case, which surely sets it apart from the pile-on that RIM has faced in recent years. Headlines declaring RIM “the walking dead” or “worth more dead than alive” are now commonplace. This seems hasty and hyperbolic. If Apple had been scrutinized this carefully in 1980 after the failure of the Apple III, would there now be archives full of “Apple is dead” articles for us to study with wry amusement?
There are already signs that RIM watchers are wrong about their terminal diagnosis. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company unveiled a PlayBook update addressing many of the original’s shortcomings, such as the absence of built-in e-mail. And the tablet’s elegant management of social media puts it ahead of the competition, according to some analysts.
Perhaps the crucial difference between RIM today and Apple in 1980 is that, thanks to the BlackBerry, Lazaridis and Balsillie have already dented the universe. Terms like “knowledge economy” and “innovation economy” are uttered frequently these days during political debates and by economic gurus. RIM is proof positive that these ephemeral aspirations can translate into stunning Canadian success stories. For that reason alone, we hope RIM has a few more dents left to leave behind.