The Most Orwellian of Years
The important, initial year for our story is 1984. IBM was still the world’s foremost computer company, but Macintosh had just aired their famous, hammer-hurling, Ridley Scott-directed “1984” commercial, proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Apple Macintosh personal computer.
The tech industry was about to explode (not literally – the Samsung Galaxy 7 was still decades away), with computers leaving the labs and universities to the homes of the masses.
Just watch the (excellent) period piece Halt and Catch Fire to see how exciting it all was (and to bask in the warm glow of Lee Pace’s trendsetting eyebrows – Pace-makers, if you will). Halt and Catch Fire may never have won the Emmy it deserved… but Research in Motion, on the other hand, would go on to win one.
Over the 1960s, Kitchener-Waterloo (and, at that time, especially Kitchener) saw incredible growth, firmly establishing itself as one of Ontario’s key industrial and manufacturing hubs. However, this particular windfall wasn’t one to last, and like many other Ontario cities (and many more in the Rust Belt of the United States), the Region’s economy suffered as multiple factories shut down.
Unlike many of those other cities, though, Kitchener-Waterloo (and, at this time, especially Waterloo) had a backup plan, and more glories in store for them on the horizon.
By 1984, both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University were well-established. Doug Wright was president of the University of Waterloo (more on this in the UW-focussed article), and the City of Waterloo was at something of a crossroads.
Although manufacturing still was (and still is to this day) a vital employer in the Region, it was in decline; Waterloo’s economy needed to diversify. Enter: a pair of forward-thinking engineering students.
Research In Motion in Motion
Mike Lazardis was a student in the University of Waterloo’s Engineering program; Douglas Fregin, on the other hand, was a student in the University of Windsor’s Engineering program (there must be something special about engineering and institutions called ‘UW’). Together, these young, intrepid entrepreneurs co-founded Research In Motion in 1984.
Given the company’s incredible rise to prominence over the past couple decades, it’s hard to imagine a time when RIM was a small, local startup, but that’s just what they were. Running out of Waterloo from day one, Research In Motion was in many ways the startup to start all startups in the Region.
Their forward-thinking vision for the future, their strong focus on emerging technologies (and the tech industry generally), and their decision to maintain Waterloo as their base of operation would turn out to quite influential in the shape the region’s economy would take in the years to come.
BBBBB: BlackBerry Before BlackBerry
Research In Motion’s big breakthrough (and the brand with which they’ve become almost singularly affiliated; indeed, since 2013, the company name itself) was, of course, BlackBerry. But the first iteration of BlackBerry was still fifteen years away when the company emerged in 1984: what did they do in the intervening years?
The big thing was doubling down on wireless technology. Indeed, RIM was the first company in all of North America to emerge as a wireless data technology developer. Silicon Valley, that bustling hub around the San Francisco Bay, has rightly become nearly synonymous with tech development, but it’s important to note that, from the ‘80s onward, the Waterloo Region has been the site of more than its fair share of innovations, earning it the moniker of
Silicon Valley North. RIM, and UW (again, more on that in another article), did much to bring Canadian tech development to the international stage.
The best way to get a sense of just what RIM was up to in the years leading up to 1999, the fateful first introduction of BlackBerry, is to peruse the list of milestones on their website here. In short, they kept busy.
From numerous developments for Mobitex (a wireless network developed in the ‘80s; essentially, radio-based communication used by early cell phones and other devices), to point-of-sale terminals, to pagers (including the first two-way messaging Inter@ctive Pager) RIM was at the cutting edge of communications technology from early on, no matter their humble origins.
Smartphones have all but nullified the value of pagers, but they retain relevance if only for their prominence in HBO’s The Wire, perhaps the greatest television series of all time, and their role in RIM’s formative years.
Innovation and Growth
RIM became a publicly traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1997, scooped up a staggering number of awards, and continued launching their own handheld devices (some of which resemble the later BlackBerry that took the world by storm).
Then came the year 1999, when RIM unveiled the RIM 850 pager, and the game-changing BlackBerry Enterprise Server Software, which allowed for wireless email through the Microsoft Exchange Server.
Over the next couple years, RIM underwent staggering growth, and began launching some of the world’s very first smartphones. From intuitive design features (such as built-in, wireless calendars – things that would go on to become commonplace) to early Java 2 support, it wasn’t long before RIM became not just prominent in North America, but globally.
Between 2003 and 2009, RIM was riding high – higher and higher each year, in fact. The distinctive BlackBerry design was sought-after for its functionality and ease of use, and the company remained relentlessly innovative. Stock prices climbed, subscriber counts soared past the 5 million mark, and the company, its products, and Mike Lazardis earned awards and distinctions with each passing year. In 2007, it became the largest tech company in all of Canada.
The iPhone (cue suspenseful music) was released in 2007, and it was, of course, a game-changer in its own right. But despite Lazardis’ optimism in 2008 that smartphones with qwerty keyboards would remain the status quo, the iPhone’s touchscreen would prove to be the winning format. Nevertheless, in 2009, BlackBerry accounted for just over 20% of the global smartphone market, versus iPhone at just over 17%, and Android a distant third at 3.5%.
This would prove to be the high-water mark for BlackBerry in terms of market share (and Android, especially, would undergo exponential growth; the current figures are roughly 88% for Android, and 11.9% for iPhone).
From that point forward, BlackBerry’s market share went into decline. Lazardis and Jim Balsillie (who received his PhD from Wilfrid Laurier University, the other exceptional Waterloo university) stepped down as Co-CEO’s, and German-Canadian Thorsten Heins took up the reins.
The innovative BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system was released in 2013 (along with BB10 smartphones), to positive reviews, and the company officially changed its name from RIM to BlackBerry.
The Future for BlackBerry
Although the halcyon days of BlackBerry making up a fifth of the smartphone market are behind them, the future is still bright for BlackBerry. John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry since November 2013, has implemented plans and strategies to keep BlackBerry going well into the future. One of the brightest spots for the company turns out to be beyond Canada’s borders, in Indonesia.
Indonesia is a massive country (4th most populous in the world, and 14th largest in terms of area), and BlackBerry just so happens to be massively popular there. Approximately 48% of Indonesians own a BlackBerry, and 80% of messaging (across platforms, including BlackBerry, iOS, and Android) in Indonesia makes use of BBM (both of these stats come from BlackBerry).
BlackBerry started a joint company called BB Merah Putih to specifically meet the demands of their large Indonesian customer base, including the affordable Z3 model and the BlackBerry Aurora.
And even without Indonesia, BlackBerry is still a force to be reckoned with in the Canadian tech industry. Here are a few interesting facts from the BlackBerry website (as of April 2019): All 7 of the G7 governments are BlackBerry customers. BlackBerry operates in 30 countries, with 18 major development centres in 7 of them.
BlackBerry had $1 billion of cash in February, 2019 (incidentally, the same amount I once discovered under my couch cushion). And that’s just scratching the surface (check out more here).
It enjoyed well over 100 million users as recently as 2015. The arrival of platforms like WhatsApp hurt BBM’s market share, however, and as of May 31st, 2019, only the paid, enterprise version will remain.
Role in the Community
BlackBerry remains a significant employer in the Waterloo Region (as of 2017 they have just over 4000 employees worldwide), as well as a steady presence in the Canadian stock market.
Beyond the purely economic side of the company, BlackBerry has also shown a commitment to the Region that they call home, and a willingness to invest in the community, perhaps best represented by RIM Park, the massive recreation centre in northern Waterloo.
Waterloo has become a world-leader in technological innovation, and this is thanks in a very large part to BlackBerry. The Waterloo Region is home to dozens of profitable, forward-thinking startups (many emerging from the University of Waterloo and Communitech, in the heart of Kitchener’s Innovation District), and well-established tech companies (D2L, or Desire2Learn, a cloud-based educational software developer based in Kitchener).
BlackBerry paved the way for the Waterloo Region’s emergence as an international tech presence, and as the Region’s economy continues to grow, it’s worth remembering the company that came first.
BlackBerry proved that you don’t need to fly to California to become a world-leader in technology, and that a small, Waterloo-based startup can not only set its sights on the stars, but actually get there.
Written by Will Kummer