Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: Blackberry Planet by Alastair Sweeny

by Gary Woodill on October 15, 2009

A review of:

Sweeny, Alastair (2009) Blackberry Planet: the story of Research in Motion and the little device that took the world by storm. Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada.

In 1999, I attended a meeting on technology innovation at the Toronto Board of Trade. The person sitting next to me told me that she was investing in a Waterloo, Ontario company I had never heard of called Research in Motion (RIM). Shortly after that, I acquired my first Blackberry and was enamored with the ability to receive e-mail on my belt. I also tried to use it to read news and weather reports but found that the page by page loading was terribly slow.

The Blackberry has come a long way in the past 10 years, ranking right up there with the top two or three brands in smart phones. Alastair Sweeny’s new book Blackberry Planet chronicles the growth of RIM from its beginnings in 1984 as a two-person technology startup in a one-room office to the multibillion dollar company it is today.

The two people who started the company were Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, young engineers in their early twenties. They began by making LCD display screens for the General Motors Canada assembly line. 10 years later they won an Academy Award for a film bar code reader, “a device that revolutionized Hollywood.” But, being engineers, they had little interest or focus in running a business. Luckily, in 1992 experienced businessman Jim Balsillie join the management team with a $250,000 investment, becoming the co-CEO with Mike Lazaridis.

Contracts with AT&T, Rogers, and Ericsson led to the development of RIM’s growing expertise in miniature radios and pagers in the 1990s. In 1996, RIM produced the world’s first pocket-sized, two-way pager. That led to the development of the first Blackberry, the 950, two years later.

Sweeny’s corporate biography gives details on the successes, tribulations and failures of the company from its beginnings to the present day. Sales of Blackberrys were boosted into the stratosphere by such events as the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. In these disasters, the Blackberry e-mail network kept working while most other means of communication went down. Sweeny writes, “during the horrific attacks that day in New York and Washington, the only people trapped in the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers who were able to contact their loved ones after cell service failed were those with Blackberrys. Police, firefighters, and ambulance drivers and US Vice President Dick Cheney all used their Blackberry devices during the crisis.”

The fact that President Obama has insisted on keeping his heavily modified Blackberry in spite of concerns by the Secret Service that could be hacked, has resulted in massive positive publicity for RIM. At the present time, the US government is the single largest user of Blackberrys, owning over 500,000 of the devices.

But it was not all rosy on Blackberry Planet over the years. A whole chapter is devoted to lawsuits that were filed against RIM and by RIM for patent infringement. Particularly difficult for the company was a lawsuit filed in 2001 by NTP Inc., a company known as a “patent troll.” The business model of such companies is to buy older patents with the hope of successfully suing other companies for infringement. After lengthy court case in Richmond, Virginia, RIM settled by paying NTP $612.5 million. It could’ve been much worse.

There’s also a chapter on the problem of Blackberry addiction, and the disruptive effects that 24/7 phone and e-mail access can have on family life. In reviewing the social impact of Blackberrys, Sweeny cites a large Canadian study by Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins who interviewed more than 100,000 mobile-device equipped Canadians and their families from 2006 to 2008. In 2007, the research team started focusing on Blackberry use almost exclusively. They came up with the following statistics on users:

  • 37% checked their Blackberry occasionally.
  • 37% checked their Blackberry frequently.
  • 26% said they checked their Blackberry only when they were traveling/away from the office, but then used the device constantly.
  • 10% said they checked their Blackberry constantly (more than 20 times per day).

Respondents also said that they handled an average of 24.7 Blackberry messages per day. The negative impact on families was apparent. “Many spouses weren’t at all pleased, and 55% said their partner was making ‘inappropriate’ use of their Blackberry several times a day, using it constantly to check their e-mails at home or in a social or family setting.”

The book ends with a chapter entitled “The Rise of the TeleBrain.” The author quotes Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, where he calls humans “an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide.”

This well researched book documents how we got to this state, and where it is going to take us next.

The book has a support website at