For about 10 years now, Canada’s business experts have been waiting for Research In Motion to fail. At the start of the decade, the consensus on Bay Street held that RIM was insane to be trying to build and market its own handset, going head-to-head against Goliath competitors like Nokia, Motorola and Palm. Talk to most analysts and they were dead certain that Waterloo’s nifty little startup, with its cool e-mail pagers, would get crushed by bigger, smarter competition from abroad. The only reasonable strategy would be to find a strong partner and license their e-mail software in return for royalties. That would have been a nice, safe little strategy, and soon enough one of those big phone makers would have swallowed RIM whole. But Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis weren’t interested.
Once RIM proved that the BlackBerry was a wildly popular revolutionary device, more than capable of trumping anything Palm could come up with, the concerns about patents arose. “Look! RIM doesn’t even own their own technology! They’re doomed!” Well the patent wars dragged on, but in retrospect, they were little more than a temporary (though expensive) distraction. Now, of course, the experts are collectively preoccupied with increasing competition. The iPhone is slick, fun, and its e-mail capability is very nearly as good as BlackBerry’s. The Palm Pre is an impressive smartphone in its own right, and Google’s Nexus One looks like a formidable new player. All this has many claiming, once again, that RIM’s best days are over.
Sometimes it seems we Canadians just can’t bring ourselves to believe that we have a world-class technology champion in our midst. Rather than tripping over ourselves to predict its downfall, we should all be collectively rooting for RIM’s success.
If Canada is going to develop the dynamic high-tech industry we so desperately want, we’ll need champions capable of winning on a global scale. Right now, Canada has precisely one company that fits the bill: RIM.
Consider a few facts: When we ranked the 100 biggest technology companies in Canada last year, RIM stood atop the list with a market value of $45.7 billion. No. 2 was CGI Group, less than 1/14th RIM’s size. In fact, the market value of companies two through 100 combined added up to less than half RIM’s value. Now, there are certainly some very exciting small Canadian tech firms on that list, but not one of them can hold a candle to RIM’s reach and influence.
Between 2001 and 2008 (a period in which employment in Canada’s telecom and computer industries was essentially flat), RIM increased its labour force tenfold, from about 1,200 to 12,000. And then there is RIM’s impact on tech research in Canada. In 2008, the company spent roughly $383.6 million in the lab – making it the country’s sixth-biggest private R&D spender. And while most of the other big spenders were reining in budgets, RIM increased its spending by 51% in one year.
Then, of course, there’s the philanthropy. RIM’s top three executives donated $170 million to help establish the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, which is fast becoming a global powerhouse in the exploration of new scientific ideas. It’s exactly the kind of spinoff benefit that helps foster a culture of innovation that will pay real dividends for the future health of Canada’s knowledge economy.
When Nortel imploded last year, we lost this country’s biggest R&D spender, and a hugely important tech titan. We can’t afford to lose another.
I have a Mac laptop and an iPod, and I love them. I also have a BlackBerry, and I can’t imagine working without it. Within a year, I’ll be ready to replace my handset. When I do, I will be getting another BlackBerry because, as a Canadian, I have a lot riding on the company’s success. Let’s face it, we all do.