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What RIM's Failing Says About Canada

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Rather infamously, although unofficially, Google's corporate mantra is the fairly benign: "Don't be evil."
And while lately that philosophy has come under attack as Google extends its perky red, blue, yellow, and green claws into as many parts of the digital value chain as it can, the Google brain trust supposedly believes that a modern media company can "make money without doing evil." It even says so on their corporate webpage.

On the surface everyone's favourite search engine cum Internet behemoth has seemingly benevolent ambitions. Google's corporate mission is almost messianic: " [we're] continuously looking into ways to bring all the world's information to people seeking answers."

How lovely.

And while this rosy view of their endeavors may seem hokey to a jaded public which grows increasingly concerned that Google is nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing, Google's mission is in keeping with how its major corporate competitors paint themselves with an almost missionary like zeal.

Consider Facebook, which does the following for its users: "To help you connect and share with the people in your life." Mark Zuckerberg even recently declared that: "Our development is guided by the idea that every year, the amount that people want to add, share, and express is increasing."

Similarly Amazon's vision is to be earth's most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

Regardless of your level of skepticism, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the fourth digital powerhouse Apple, have very clear and very lofty goals for their enterprises. While these four companies are all making very different bets on what our integrated future looks like, the common goal of the "Fab Four" is to own as much of the content purchase, delivery, and playback mechanisms as they can.

As Fast Company's article, "The Great Tech War of 2012," notes: "There was a time, not long ago, when you could sum up each company quite neatly: Apple made consumer electronics, Google ran a search engine, Amazon was a web store, and Facebook was a social network. How quaint that assessment seems today."

The good Canadian patriot in all of us hopefully asks: Where in this messy digital soup is RIM?

The answer, quite sadly, is nowhere.

While much ink has been spilled over RIM's recent fall from grace, there is a part of me that wonders if it is Canada itself which prevented the Blackberry from playing in the big-boy sandbox. I wonder if it was pre-ordained that a tech company based in Waterloo, Ontario would never become the world's dominant smartphone maker?

Unlike Apple, Amazon, Facebook, or Google, RIM seemingly had a much smaller vision for its technological future.

While RIM's corporate mission statement is similar to that of Facebook: "RIM helps users all over the globe connect to the specific people, information and media that makes their worlds go round," I doubt that the company ever saw the Blackberry as part of a broader eco-system of owning, delivering, and selling content.

Witness Jim Balsillie's now infamous and very dismissive reaction upon the introduction of the iPhone, "How much presence does Apple have in business? It's vanishingly small." What Balsillie failed to realize was that while Apple had a nascent knowledge of the cellphone industry (presumably "the business" Balsillie was referring to), Steve Jobs WAS well known for revolutionizing how consumers bought, shared, and stored digital music. .

But RIM never really wanted to create a digital ecosystem: RIM believed that telephony was the pure play. In RIM's 2008 Annual Report, (2008 will probably be remembered as the company's halcyon year -- the last year the Blackberry iOS exhibited market-share growth in the United States), RIM used aspirational quotes from its customers to highlight how effective the Blackberry was as a communications device: "Being in contact makes for less work, more fun, more play." Or, "I can communicate new insights and inspirations immediately."

As its technological competitors leap-frogged it creating entirely new industries around the integration of phones, software, and content delivery, RIM was happily simply connecting customers to other customers, trumpeting its proprietary BBM software and security features as if it was rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic trying to convince the Street that consumers gave a damn.

Even today as RIM releases updates to its orphaned Playbook system, it has developed a product that will only have limited mobile ad support. A lack of mobile advertising disincentivizes app developers from creating software for the Playbook, thus further reinforcing RIM and the Playbook as nothing more than an expensive communication device even as consumers truly start to see the possibilities of the mobile ecosystem.

So does RIM's downfall fulfill a nasty Canadian trope? Does RIM's narrow-mindedness shadow Canada's status as a middle-power? No world domination please, we're Canadian. The Blackberry is like the technological version of Lester Pearson's peacekeepers, a fine and dandy tool during times of peace, but useless throughout a period of prolonged technological upheaval.

In his seminal work on the Canadian identity, Lament for a Nation, George Grant prophetically feared that Canadian nationalism would eventually be superseded by continentalism. A part of this was fear was technological determinism: technology, modernity, and progress would render the idea of "local culture" irrelevant.

In the 1960s, Grant saw Canada as an increasingly liberal state, one which fetishized the "vaunted freedom of the individual," (the U.S.) while moving away from its Marxist leanings. There were technological ramifications to these political shifts too; as Grant noted, "In Marxism technology remains an instrument that serves human good."

This ability to serve human good was RIM's competitive advantage and what made the company Canada's great technological, if not nationalistic, hope. The Blackberry -- a technology that facilitated simple communication -- fulfilled the Marxist intentions of its home country; it just wanted to connect people to others.

The irony in all of this is that for a brief moment in time, RIM attempted to prove Grant's fears unfounded. If RIM succeeded then Canada did not have to become a brunch plant of the U.S. Technology wouldn't be Canada's undoing; rather, it would be our nationalistic saviour.

Sadly, Grant's lament was strangely prophetic. Contintentlism won out. The supposed personal freedoms of Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google -- all of whom said: "don't be evil" -- declared war on the one company which actually wasn't.

As Grant himself wrote: When men are committed to technology, they are also committed to continual change in institutions and customers.

Technology changed, RIM didn't. R.I.P.