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.



What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 6 of 6)

Photos-iconThis is part 6 in a 6 part series on my digital photo library.  Quick jumps:


This was a pretty fun experiment. It satisfied all my data curiosity as to what I’ve been doing with photos. It doesn’t help me decide at all whether I’m going to move to the new “Photos” app, except to say this – with all the photos I have, I’m at nearly 200GB of data since 2001. That will cost me $3.99/m to Apple to use the iCloud Photos Library. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there yet. 🙂

Are you interested in your photo taking history?  If so, let me know. If your photos are decently tagged with EXIF data, I’d be happy to help you figure it out.

(Back to part 5)

What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 5 of 6)

Photos-iconThis is part 5 in a 6 part series on my digital photo library.  Quick jumps:

Megapixels, Megapixels, Megapixels

Over time there were a variety of cameras being used, and the quality got ever better. The images got bigger (more pixels). Below is a graph showing the average megapixel image per year.


Wow!  In 2014, the average image had about 20x the number of pixels in it when compared to 2001. With more pixels in each image, the size of those images are bigger, which is how we got the library sizes above. What, then, were the average image sizes?


Look at that. In 2014, the average image size was 4.98MB. In 2001, the CF card I was using was only 8MB, so I wouldn’t have even been able to take 2 pictures using that card today. Yet, because storage has gotten so cheap, I can just keep snapping away.

(Part 6: Conclusion)

(Back to part 4)

What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 4 of 6)

Photos-iconThis is part 4 in a 6 part series on my digital photo library.  Quick jumps:

How Much Space Am I Using?

So, I’m taking more photos over time, as my behavior is more used to taking lots of digital photos and just storing them. And I’m adding different kinds of cameras into the mix. And we know, just from Moore’s Law, that those pictures are getting bigger (more pixels) with less compression (less artifacts). How much space was I adding to my library every year?


So, 2012 and beyond sent me off the deep end, and at first glance, it doesn’t look like I was adding much to the library on a year by year basis until the DSLR came in. But that’s not true – the DSLR additions have just squashed the scale. Let’s look only up to 2011, before the DSLR.


In 2011, I added nearly 3GB of pictures. Compare that to 2001, when I added 0.13GB (130MB) of pictures. I was definitely adding a ton more pictures, right?  Yes, but that’s not the real story for why the library is bigger. From the first graph, in 2001 I added 286 pictures, and in 2011 I added 1,413 pictures.

Let’s do some math here:

Pictures Library Size


286 0.13GB
2011 1,413


Increase 494%


Yes, in 2011 I added 494% more photos than in 2001. But in terms of disk space, I added 2,262% more photos. What’s going on?

The answer, of course, is quality. Remember from earlier how expensive flash was in 2000 compared to 2014. Also note that from a technology perspective, digital photography was still in its infancy in 2000, so the number of pixels available to use were much lower, (and I lowered them still by shooting at even lower quality than the camera could do). Over time, the quality of cameras has improved. In 2001, I was shooting mostly 640×480 images, which translates to 0.3 megapixel (MP) images. What does that mean?  Let’s do some math (don’t worry, you won’t be tested on it)


640 dots per line, with 480 lines gives a total pixel count of 640 * 480 = 307,200 pixels

To get megapixels from that, you divide that number by 1 million (mega = million).

307,200 / 1,000,000 = 0.307 megapixels.

Now, let’s fast forward in time to 2011. In 2011, my iPhone 4 was shooting 5MP images (2592 × 1936). Going forward still, to 2014, my iPhone 5s was shooting 8MP images (2448 × 3264), and the DSLR was shooting 24mp images (6000 x 4000). Think about that. I’m taking pictures now that have roughly 78 times more information in the same picture!

(Part 5: How Have the Megapixels of Pictures Changed Over Time?)

(Back to Part 3)

What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 3 of 6)

Photos-iconThis is part 3 in a 6 part series on my digital photo library.  Quick jumps:

From part 2, you can see the massive increase in photos I’m taking. At some point I’ve hit a tipping point and photos are just being snapped all the time. So, what was I using to take photos?


From the first graph, the first little bulge happened in 2007/2008. That would imply that the iPhone was being used, but I didn’t have an iPhone until 2009 as shown above. Yet I was taking more pictures. I think what happened is that while I didn’t have an iPhone, plenty of other people did, and now I didn’t look so weird having a camera glued to my hand. Many more people were taking photos, so it felt more socially acceptable to take more. You can see that I started using the iPhone as soon as I got it (an iPhone 3G). The point-and-shoots didn’t disappear right away, though. While I was definitely taking photos with the iPhone, the quality of those weren’t great compared to regular point and shoots, and point and shoot cameras rapidly improved during this time. I now had better quality point and shoot cameras, and I was using them a lot. These were also the years our kids were entering school, so while photos had started trailing off earlier (how many toddler photos do you need) we now had a whole new reason to take them.

But what was most interesting was the next bump, starting in 2011. We discovered DSLRs, and boy did they take great pictures. Starting in 2012, I started using that camera more often, and you can see in the yellow bars that the number of photos just exploded. I found the “sport mode”, and spent hours shooting action shots of the kids playing kickball, running, jumping in the pool, etc. The last interesting bump here is in 2014. By now my wife had really gotten into the “take pictures” bug with her iPhone, and I was too. I think this is because of social media – it is so easy to snap a picture and post it to Facebook. Also at this time, my daughter got a phone, and well, yeah…

One last note on the DSLR and the cheap cost of storage. While not on this chart since 2015 is not done, I shot pictures of a play my daughter did at the local community theatre. I shot these photos in “RAW” mode with the DSLR. I took over 800 photos of one of the performances. Yowza

I’m Using Different Cameras, But What’s the Ratio?

The above bar chart is interesting, but let’s reorganize it as a percentage – how much am I using different cameras?


You can see that the point and shoots are basically gone as a percentage of total photos (note though that there were 394 photos with point and shoots in 2014, yet only 286 in 2000, representing all pictures). The iPhone is gobbling up more of a percentage, and clearly, I need professional help because I’m snapping DSLR pictures like there is no tomorrow.

(Part 4: How Much Disk Space Do My Photos Take?)

(Go back to part 2)

What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 2 of 6)

Photos-iconThis is part 2 in a 6 part series on my digital photo library.  Quick jumps:

How Many Photos Have I Taken?

The first thing I was interested in knowing was how many photos I take every year. We got the first camera because we wanted to easily take pictures of our first born, and you know how parents can be with photos. But what was shocking to me is that, while I certainly thought I took tons of photos, we’re taking way, way more photos now. Compared to film, the number of digital photos we took were an order of magnitude more. But as you can see in the chart below, the number of photos taken in the last few years dwarfs the number of photos taken when the kids were babies.


Trying to think about why this may be, I think there are two factors.

First, consider how many I took in 2001… 286. If I were still using film, I would be surprised if I took anywhere close to, say, 90. (Keep in mind, my wife still took a lot of photos with film cameras during this time). That would have been three rolls of film, and I just wouldn’t have done it – I would have forgotten to buy more film, and thus not taken some photos, and then forgot again, and then remembered after developing the last roll and realizing I don’t want to spend that much money again, etc. So, even though I was using digital photography, my behavior was built around taking film pictures. I know I looked at the number of photos I took back then and thought it was kind of a ridiculous number – it felt like I had a camera glued to my hand. But it is nothing like now. The world has changed.

Secondly, as much fun and easy as digital photography was, it isn’t like there was unlimited storage. CompactFlash (CF) cards were expensive, and it isn’t like we had tons of hard drive space just laying around. Scanning the interwebs, I found a history of hard drive prices, and found a 6GB drive was available in 1999 for $290, or roughly $0.048 per MB. This was for a bulky 3.5” “bare” drive. You couldn’t use it externally – you would have to have opened up a desktop case and installed it, so you may not even have had anyplace to put it. At the time of this writing, you can get a 1TB USB3 based portable drive from Western Digital for about $70, or roughly $0.00007 per MB. This newer drive I can throw in a backback and lug around with me, plugging it in if my memory card on my camera (or phone) ever got full.

But those memory cards never do get full. The PowerShot S100 had an 8MB CF card in it. My DSLR has a 64GB SD card in it. While I couldn’t find the CF card’s price in 2000, if I do a little extrapolation from available data, I’m going to guess that the 8MB CF card cost me about $50 in 2000, or $6.25 per MB. The 64GB SD card cost a $22, or $0.0003 per MB. Looking at 2000 with these eyes, then, memory was “free” when compared to film, but not nearly as free as it is now.

To explore this a bit further, I opened up one of the photos from back then, a 108KB photo. That’s roughly 11% of a MB, so the photo “cost” 69 cents to store in 2000. A photo I took on the Nikon D5200 at the end of 2014 was 13.3MB, which “cost” $0.0039 in 2014, or 0.39 cents. No wonder I’m taking more photos now, right?

(Part 3: What Cameras Have I Used?)

(Go back to part 1)

What Are My Digital Photos Like? (Part 1 of 6)

Photos-iconWhat follows here is a summary of some lengthy work I went into, because I wanted to write a post about digital photos that we’ve all been taking, some of us for over a decade. I’ll be breaking it up into multiple parts to ease the digestion of it all.  Quick jumps:



When Apple came out with their latest iOS and OSX releases, they created a new application for managing photos, called simply enough, “Photos”. They have touted this as re-thinking digital photography and library management from the ground up, replacing iPhoto, photos on the iPhone, and the cloud sharing aspect “My Photo Stream” and “Shared Photo Streams”.

Apple has done this with applications before, specifically iMovie and most recently the professional video editor Final Cut Pro. In every case, the new app has less features than what came before it, and has caused headaches for some people. With Photos, Apple claims the changes in the new architecture will allow them to add in 3rd party plug-ins and all sorts of other advanced features. I tend to believe them here, because this is exactly what happened with iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

One of the newest features added is “ICloud Photo Library”. Unlike before, with “My Photo Stream”, this uploads all your photos into the cloud, has the cloud manage them (an optional feature to make it such that your originals aren’t clogging up space on your hard drive), and makes all photos you’ve ever taken anywhere accessible on any Apple device (Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Macs) at any time. You can make changes to a photo on any device, and that change is reflected everywhere. The cloud library is non-destructive, so you can revert a change. There are natural concerns with this (I don’t have my photos – they are on the cloud?!?!?!), but it certainly is appealing. The idea that you don’t have to manually synchronize your iDevices with your Mac and thus never have to delete a photo to free up space is awesome.

I’ve been debating whether to go the Apple Photos route, which meant looking at all my photo libraries, which I have already divided up in order to better organize and to save space. In doing so, it really got me thinking about how my digital photo libraries. iCloud Photo Library isn’t free – anything over 5GB costs money. So, how big is my library?  How many photos have I taken?  What did I take them with?. How much storage space am I using?  Finally, how have things changed over time?

This last one is of special interest to my autistic-leaning brain. I wasn’t quite a first generation adopter of digital photography, but I latched onto it in 2000 when our first child was about to be born. I liked the idea of taking tons of photos and not having to develop them. I wouldn’t have to worry about a bunch of missed opportunities because I snapped the shutter at just the wrong time. I could take them over and over and over and just keep the best ones.

I know that the digital photos I took in 2001 pale in comparison to the ones I take now. Moore’s Law has meant I’m taking bigger and bigger photos, with more megapixels and much more granularity, than I was back then.

So, I decided to dig in and see what I’ve done and share with you. You’re welcome. J

My Digital Photography History

I bought a digital camera in 2000 as we were getting ready for the birth of our first child. It was a Canon PowerShot S100. It was a 2.1 megapixel camera, but I hardly ever used it at that resolution, as you would barely be able to fit any pictures on the CF (CompactFlash) card (I initially had an 8MB card, and later upgraded it to a 48MB card, which surprisingly I still happen to have). Most of my pictures were 0.3 megapixels (I’ll dig into megapixels more later).

The 48MB CF Card from my first digital camera

The 48MB CF Card from my first digital camera

Over time, this camera was replaced with various other point and shoot cameras. There were some other PowerShot models, one or two Kodak EasyShares, a Samsung or two, and a couple of Sonys. Eventually, I moved totally over to using my phone as my camera, and in the last couple of years I have started getting more interested in photography, and own a Nikon D5200 DSLR.

Organizing My Photos

I was and still am a HUGE stickler for making sure the date and time are correct on the camera. This is not a problem for the iPhone camera, but was a big deal for my old point and shoots, and I constantly make sure my DSLR is correct. I want to know when, exactly, I took a photo. I’m so autistic about this that I have gone into photos my wife took with one of her point and shoots where the date and time was off (no, this was not taken in 1990 at 12:01am), and compared it to photos I may have taken, or pestered her into finding the exact date and rough times, and then manually edited the EXIF data on the photo to fix the date and time. I simply cannot stand not knowing when something was taken.

I would like to extend this to “where”, but that is much harder. The old point and shoots didn’t have GPS on them, so the “where” on most my old photos are lost to history. And it pisses me off… to no end… that Nikon doesn’t just build GPS into their damned DSLR cameras. The extrenal GPS module for it is an unwieldy, ugly beast that is ridiculously expensive and I’m just not going to buy it. I’ve had a minor argument with a couple of photog friends about this, who see no reason that a GPS should be added, (some don’t care much for having the date and time). To which I reply (silently in my head) that these people are dinosaurs. It makes searching for photos so much easier, and I would think as a photog you would want to have an idea of when and where you maybe took a photo, in case you want to try to reproduce it. This technology is cheap. Just do it already. Ugh.

Anyway, because my photos are really well organized for date and time, I am able to gather a lot of data, and it made it much easier to create the charts that follow. As a computer nerd, I wrote a lot of scripts (in Perl, using ImageTool::Exif) to pull relevant information from the photos, imported the results into Excel, did a little formatting, and wala.

How I Organized the Data

I went through a lot of revisions of pulling data. At first I wanted to know each individual camera (data stored in the EXIF), but that turned out to be way too much granularity. The sheer number of point and shoots we owned prior to having the iPhone camera really surprised me. Knowing the difference between a D3200 and D5200 DSLR wasn’t informative, and after really looking at all this data, breaking out the different iPhone models wasn’t informative. So, for the purposes of making the data easy to review, I collapsed all my point and shoots into one bucket, all the DSLRs into another, and all the iPhones into a third.

OK, now… show me the data!

(Part 2: How Many Photos Have I Taken)