Book Review: “Losing The Signal”

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry (Amazon, Apple) is a business biography of the Canadian phone maker that rose to prominence on the power of corporate messaging and e-mail to be a powerhouse, only to spectacularly collapse within a few years of the introduction of the iPhone.

I think a lot of people know the basics of the story, and in some ways assume that the fall was pre-ordained. After all, Apple has come in and disrupted industries before, Steve Jobs was on top of his game in the mid 2000s, and the iPhone was simply revolutionary, so of course this meant somebody like BlackBerry would fade away.

But the book tells a more complex story. A well-written narrative by authors by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff describes how BlackBerry managed to create a data messaging network at a time when data networks were terrible and expensive, and how BlackBerry managed growth through a two-headed CEO, one of them the technical genius (Mike Lazaridis), and the other a cut-throat businessman (Jim Balsillie). These are brilliant guys who created something amazing.

What is even more important than the rise of BlackBerry, however, is how it fell apart. Lazaridis and Balsillie were just as smart before the iPhone came out as after. But the things that allowed BlackBerry to exist and thrive – it’s stinginess on data usage, and its long battery life, simply became unimportant to people. Data networks improved while the cost dropped, and people didn’t mind having to plug their device in more often, especially if the device allowed them to play Angry Birds.

Missing this was a failure of Lazaridis, who was still insisting that 4G networks weren’t worth implementing, and who felt that customers would flat out reject a device that didn’t last multiple days on a single battery charge. However, to be fair to Lazaridis, he had gone through this experience before, telling carriers they didn’t need 3G as quick as they thought, and pushed them to a technology dubbed 2.5G, and Lazaridis was proven right. It was not out of the question for him to think he was right again on the 4G transition.

Similarly, on the business front, Balsillie rubbed many people the wrong way, and BlackBerry’s insistence on monthly network fees to use the encrypted data service was something that carriers were constantly trying to get out of. As soon as BlackBerry faltered (with the ill-conceived touch-screen Storm device after the iPhone came to market), the carriers began to flee to Android. Was BlackBerry a better, more robust, and encrypted service?  Yes. Did it matter?  No.

The book also highlights one of the things that is common with startup businesses that become successful. Many times the person or people who found the company are not the people who should be leading it after it makes its mark. BlackBerry never learned this. The co-CEOs appointed a compliant board that didn’t ask questions, and when market realities changed, there was nobody to question the founders when they continued to play by the same technical and business rules as before, when Apple and later Google changed those rules completely. Essentially, the game changed from baseball to football, but BlackBerry was trying to sell better pitchers mounds and more efficient means of putting the bases on baseball diamonds.

One issue I had with the book is that secondary characters – friends of Lazaridis or Balsillie who were also very important to BlackBerry’s success, sort of fade in and out of the narrative, only popping in to give the after-the-fact 20/20 hindsight account of how a decision Lazaridis or Balsillie made was wrong or could have been better. It became a bit difficult to remember all of these names, and since they weren’t considered essential characters, it is hard to understand whether the failures and successes were all on Lazaridis and Balsillie, or if the actions of these people also contributed to the rise and fall.

As an example, Lazaridis would give incredibly difficult, probably impossible, product deadlines for a new device. Up until the iPhone release, the engineering teams consistently pulled these off. Afterwards, it was consistent failure (starting with the Storm). It would have been nice to get more information as to why this was – were teams burnt out? Were they just lucky before and the law of averages kicked in? Did the scope of the impossible change to something that truly was impossible whereas before it was just hard?

Another issue I had was that this book didn’t contain any pictures of the people or products. Usually biographies have some photos in them, and their absence was strange.  The book would go to great detail to describe what the first BlackBerry looked like (the 900), describing how revolutionary and addicting it was due to its keyboard. Additionally, lots of time was spent describing the Storm and what was wrong with the technology, but no picture of the Storm itself. I found myself jumping out of the book to look these devices up, both to get an understanding of what was being described, and to take a trip down nostalgia lane as I remember many of these devices. Putting these in the book seems like a no-brainer.

Despite these shortcomings, it is a very well written book, and a quick read. It doesn’t get too deep technically, so you will not get lost trying to understand the technology, and the business stories, especially the one where Balsillie basically conned Blackberry’s way into Europe, are quite entertaining. There is also an interesting epilogue, showing what the two now-departed CEOs are doing with the riches they earned.

 

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