Star Trek-inspired BlackBerry took the world by storm

January 13, 2010

Book Review

BlackBerry Planet
The Story of Research in Motion and the Little Device that Took the World by Storm
By Alastair Sweeny
John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.
$29.95m.
266 Pages

By Maclean Kay
Troy Media

What would make the perfect ad campaign? 

There’s a great scene in the movie The Naked Gun, where the villainous Ricardo Montalban discusses (and reveals) who would make the perfect assassin.  Not just someone who can conceal their identity – but someone who doesn’t know they’re an assassin. 

Similarly, the perfect spokesperson is someone who doesn’t know they’re a spokesperson.  Of course, you’d also want your spokesperson to be attractive, popular, admired, and very famous.  The unofficial spokesperson for Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, has all these qualities and more: 

“In just the first few weeks, I’ve had to engage in some of the toughest diplomacy of my life.  And that was just to keep my BlackBerry.” 

– US President Barack Obama

BlackBerry Planet, a new book by Canadian author Alastair Sweeny, looks at a tool that has gone from sci-fi inspired dream (literally inspired by the communicators on Star Trek), to novelty, to life-or-death business tool in an amazingly short period of time.    

Sweeny is on familiar turf.  He has a tech background – he developed software for Apple and Microsoft, among others – and thus understands “geekspeak” better than a layman or beat reporter.  He’s also written corporate histories before, notably for EnCana and Magna International. 

RIM’s story is worth telling.  Not only a remarkable success, but its relatively short history has hardly been incident-free.  From the original concept and trials, to conflicts with Ericsson, to the near-disaster of the patent trial, RIM has never been far from the headlines of the day.  This is partly due to the nature and popularity of BlackBerry, but also due to the personalities of its key personnel, especially co-founder Mike Lazaridis and CEO Jim Balsillie.  Thanks to the recently-concluded soap opera with the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman, Balsillie is practically a household name in Canada, but readers hoping for insight into his intrigues and attempts to move the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes to southern Ontario will be disappointed. 

That said, BlackBerry Planet is most interesting when Sweeny steps aside of the straight corporate history and discusses the wider cultural and social significance of RIM’s most famous product.  It’s not hyperbole to say BlackBerry has changed the world.  Sweeny even pinpoints the date this happened – September 11, 2001.  Overloaded cell phone networks couldn’t handle the traffic, but BlackBerry users could still get information – and, poignantly, send messages to loved ones.  Sweeny also looks at how BlackBerry etiquette has evolved in different countries, especially when it concerns heads of state.  

BlackBerry Planet is also an interesting experiment; it’s sort of a hybrid ebook.  It’s a standard hardcover, of course, but for the curious – or those addicted to browsing – there’s also a “web support” site.  It’s not just standard-issue social media advertising, but more like the extended and deleted scenes with commentary on “special edition” DVDs – you can still just watch the original movie, but there’s more if you want. 

BlackBerry Planet‘s web support site offers original documents such as the first patents and device models.  The book refers readers to site often via footnotes. 

Perhaps the best place to sum up BlackBerry’s journey is back to Washington.  President-elect Obama drew a line in the sand over the issue; the NSA forbade his predecessor from having one.  Even more revealingly, when it appeared RIM would lose a patent battle in 2004, Sweeny implies Capitol Hill exerted not-so-subtle pressure. 

The reason?  Not because of special interests or corruption or anything unseemly; Washington had come to utterly depend on RIM’s BlackBerry network.  Shutting it down simply wasn’t an option.

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