Balsillie on RIM’s origins: ‘Everyone thought of us as heretics’

TORONTO – Apple announced its iPhone, several wireless companies reported good (and not so good) quarters and switch vendors are merging. But otherwise, not much has been going on, joked Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM, to more than 1,300 business executives and politicians at the Toronto Board of Trade’s 119th Annual Dinner Monday night.

Balsillie, who was named Canadian International Executive of the Year by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, founded RIM along with partner Mike Lazaridis, makers of the ubiquitous all-in-one BlackBerry handheld device – often referred to as CrackBerry for its addictive qualities.

But he said trying to guess what will happen in the tech industry over the next five years is like trying to guess what’s going to happen on the season finale of “24.” What RIM did bet on, however, was the convergence of mobility and digital data. It also made a bet on IP as a backhaul cellular technology – grounded in analytics.

And Balsillie sees no end in sight – there are opportunities with music, gaming, videos, e-commerce and personalization. But he didn’t address Apple’s latest contribution to the tech world: the iPhone, which combines a mobile phone, widescreen iPod with touch controls and Internet communications device with e-mail, Web browsing, maps and searching.

RIM’s first product was a digital pager – which came at a time when paging was on its way out. Then it came up with the BlackBerry, named as such because the buttons on the keypad looked like the seeds of a strawberry, but “strawberry” was too slow to pronounce.

“Everyone thought of us as heretics,” said Balsillie. So much of this, he said, is about doing your own analytics, getting the timing right – and then holding on for life.

RIM now works with 300 carriers in 90 countries and runs a global IP network. It also has 500 enterprise application partners. The company got “huge grief” several years ago for OEMing through carriers, but then public opinion turned when the market changed.

“Convergence matters,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true.” But when you converge different products, it can get disruptive. “We’re the Switzerland that enables interoperability.”

According to the Toronto Board of Trade, Toronto has the third-largest ICT sector (based on employment) in North America, just after San Francisco and New York. The city is also home to the largest concentration of ICT companies in Canada, with 3,300 companies employing 150,000 people. And while Alberta’s oil boom is projected to pump $850 billion into the Canadian economy over the next 15 years, the ICT sector is already contributing $35 billion per year – and growing.

For Balsillie, there’s still much to be done. “I feel like we’ve just started,” he said.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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