My book on BlackBerry, published in 2010, took four years, twice as long as any other book I’d written at the time. Convincing the company to grant access was a lengthy effort. Even then, getting interviews on a timely basis was problematic. In all my years as a journalist and author, I’d never run across such a poorly organized company.
The book came out in March 2010 when the popularity of BlackBerry was at its peak with 75 million sold and a 50 percent share of the U.S. smartphone market. Another book, Losing the Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, published in 2015, tells how that market share fell to one percent. Their book became the basis for a new movie, BlackBerry, which I saw at a Toronto preview last night.
As for the co-CEOs of BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, Balsillie’s hard-nosed style is well captured; the thoughtful approach of Lazaridis less so. The movie takes a while to get rolling and then never really catches fire. Worse, the cinematic version takes real life tales and alters them for no apparent reason. At one point, for example, the two men meet with a carrier in New York. They mistakenly leave behind in a taxi the prototype they plan to show the group. Lazaridis goes to find it, leaving Balsillie, who does not know how the handheld will work, fumbling a presentation that ends with him saying, “You’re selling self-reliance.”
In real life, as related in my book, the 1997 meeting was with BellSouth executives in Atlanta. The two lost prototypes, known internally as Leapfrog, were retrieved from the taxi. Made of wood, each measured about 2×3 inches, had a plastic “screen” with half a dozen printed lines listing emails. The keyboard was pasted on with “keys” in an arc, and there was a pretend thumbwheel on the side. Despite this simplistic offering, so smitten were these grown men that they excitedly waited their turn as they passed around what was little more than a dressed-up child’s toy. Why alter a lively story that set in motion an early order for what became the BlackBerry?
Balsillie attended the preview and participated in a question-and-answer session after the movie was shown. He took issue with some of the film’s interpretations but admitted he was happy to be in the limelight no matter what the cinematographers had done. While I admire his pluck, I can’t say that I recommend the movie.