The Rise and Fall of the BlackBerry
There aren’t too many companies that have reached the pinnacle of their industry, only to later flop due to a lack of innovation or a stubborn insistence on holding on to the past. Tremendous success and absolute failure are not typically associated with the same company. Blockbuster and Pan Am come to mind as examples of industry leaders whose refusal to adapt, culminated with closure, and it’s likely that Blackberry belongs in the category, at least as presented here by writer-director Matt Johnson and co-writer Matt Johnson, adapting the book by Jacquie McNish.
Socially awkward pals, Mike Lazaridis (played by Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (played by the film’s director Matt Johnson), co-founded Research in Motion (RIM). The film picks up in 1996 when Mike and Doug are making their first presentation of their breakthrough handheld data delivery-email machine, which they have named Pocket Link. These are two genius nerds with no concept of how the outside business world functions and the executive to whom they are pitching is so distracted that his only feedback is, “You need a new name.” In a fascinating twist, that same executive, Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) ends up saving not just the new product, but also the company.
Balsillie presents himself as a fireball, take-charge, full-steam-ahead kind of guy. It’s quite a contrast to nerdy Mike and easy-going Doug. Mike is a quiet guy committed to perfection in his work, while Doug wrangles the tech developers with a culture of video games, movie night, and an overall fraternity environment. Balsillie’s arrival as a vocal outrage expert and brash businessman changes everything, and he and Mike drive the newly named BlackBerry to levels not previously seen. We do get a humorous anecdote from a shirt stain (even though it’s not a true story), and in fact, there is quite a bit of humor throughout.
We are informed that the film was “inspired by real people and real events,” so some dramatic license is expected. Perhaps the best comparison is The Social Network (2010), and while that film was more polished, I personally found this one more entertaining and accurate from a business sense. An excellent supporting cast includes Cary Elwes, Saul Rubinek, Michael Ironside, Martin Donovan, Rich Sommer, and SungWon Cho, and the film’s real draw is the contrast between Jay Baruchel’s mousy but brilliant Mike, and Glenn Howard’s powerhouse portrayal of the egotistical Balsillie. Baruchel’s scene where he reacts to the new iPhone is alone worth the price of admission.
At its peak, BlackBerry had a 45% market share and had earned its “CrackBerry” label in the business world. Apple’s 2007 introduction of the iPhone not only rocked the BlackBerry company, but it also shook up the world. The Canada perspective is noted (RIM was based in Waterloo, Ontario), as is Mike’s aversion to ‘made in China,’ perhaps the ultimate reason for the fall. It’s likely that BlackBerry has become a case study in business schools, although the fast-paced and pressure-packed world of tech continues to require a balance of decisions focused on current markets and never-ending innovation for the future.