Mobile Learning

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


When mobile learning first arrived on the scene about 10 years ago, it was thought to be like e-learning except on a smaller screen. That is, educational material was packaged as courses, and tests were given on mobile phones. 10 years later, there are many new developments in mobile learning, some of which have the potential of being highly disruptive of how teaching and learning has traditionally been carried out. Here are 10 new possibilities for mobile learning::

1. Micro-blogging and social media on mobile devices
2. Data Collection and Information Retrieval
3. Augmented Reality
4. Mobile Gaming and Virtual Worlds
5. Contextual learning and personalization
6. Rich media production and playback
7. Performance support and coaching
8. Multimodal input
9. Aggregated inputs
10. Self-organized collective behavior

The audience can comment and ask questions, and are encouraged to use Twitter to communicate their thoughts on the webinar with the presenters and each other, as it happens. The webinar is based on three research reports on mobile learning that I wrote in 2008.

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Ten Learning Technologies to Transform Training

by Gary Woodill on January 3, 2008

During the past 2 months I have given workshops on emerging learning technologies in 6 locations in Canada and the United States. Most workshops were attended by 10 to 20 people, most of whom had developed at least one online course for their organization, but who were looking for what was coming next. Interestingly, only about 10% of the workshop participants were under 35. I know that because I would ask who had a Facebook account. Invariably, it was the one or two people in the group who were younger ”digital natives” who volunteered to show the group their Facebook account.

The rest of the group had heard of blogs and wikis, but had usually never tried them, not even to enter a comment into a blog. But, they were there because they knew they were being left behind. The workshop time was used to introduce group members to about 10 technologies emerging in corporate training, with a chance to actually try them out.

So what ten learning technologies should be the focus of my 2008 workshops and webinars? Here is my list (but I would love to hear yours):

1. Technologies of collaboration – wikis and teamspace software will grow in use in non-academic organizations, and the field of ”computer supported collaborative learning” (CSCL), now mostly found in schools and universities, will develop outside of academic settings, including corporate training.

2. Learning Games for Business – This field is old news to die-hard gamers, but just being discovered by most people in corporate training. Most of the participants in our workshops and conference in September tried a training game for the first time. Games are being used both for training and for recruitment of a new generation of employees.

3. Distributed Computing Technologies – I introduce “mashups” and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) to workshop participants because this is a fundamental shift in how we view “websites”. Instead of sites, we need to think of a group of agents harvesting and gathering content and applications from many locations, and delivering it as a dynamic personal mix based on a user’s profile and needs.

4. Embedded Learning Technologies – computing power is already almost everywhere, from toilet seats to cell phones. I show the “hug shirt” (it vibrates and squeezes you in response to a friend’s phone message) as an example of the convergence of affective computing, wearable computing, mobile computing, haptics and teledildonics. One person at last year’s ASTD conference asked me if a “kick in the ass pants” was being developed. Hmm…

5. Multisensory input devices – Computing is mostly a visual and auditory experience. The use of touch (“haptics”) is rapidly becoming more common, led by the interace for Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft Surface technology. Watch for levers, gloves and places to put your finger in new training applications this year. While haptics will lead the way, technologies for the senses of taste and smell are not that far behind.

6. Rollout Flexible Screens for Mobile Devices – the ability to reach employees with information as they need it through mobile devices is very attractive to many training departments, but is held back by the small screens and keyboards. The introduction of flexible rollout screens (“digital paper”), with touch capabilities (“digital ink”), gesture recognition, and speech recognition for mobile devices may break that logjam. I know that this has been forecast for the past ten years, but now that it is in the Economist, it must really be happening.

7. Social Bookmarking and Automatic Synthesis of Tags – As people add tags to just about everything, a new set of technologies that gathers related tags and makes something out of them will construct some amazing synthetic worlds. Already the millions of photographs on are being used to develop 3D models of buildings and landscapes, through such applications as Photosynth.

8. Personalization Technologies – software for automatically constructing personal profiles beased on e-mail, web use trails, and user input is now available and is being used in recommender systems (e.g., Amazon), dynamic museum exhibits and information systems that change for each user, and adaptive tutoring systems. Watch for training to become more personalized.

9. Visualization of Complexity – computer data systems can continuously compile huge amounts of information. The problem is what to do with it. Because of our strong visual processing abilities, transforming large and complex data sets into pictures may be the best way for us to grasp its meaning. See for lots of examples.

10. Location-based Augmented Reality - the Global Positioning System (GPS) will track where you are through cell phones and other GPS devices, while vast amounts of data stored in Geographic Information Systems and applications such as Google Earth will drive augmented reality applications to add to your experience of any location on the globe. This information will be superimposed on the world as you move through it.

Those are my 10 learning teachnologies with great potential to shake up training in the coming year. Let me know what you think.