Being from Canada, interested in technology and the markets, and a privacy advocate, BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion (RIM), has been on my radar for a number of years, so I would like to add my two cents regarding its demise (2, 3, 4, 5).
The two most important things we need to keep in mind about the “timeline of the company from RIM to Blackberry” are that: first, “when phone systems failed in New York and DC on 9/11, it was the BlackBerry network that provided backup communication”; second, contrary to popular belief, apps were never meant to be the feature selling point for its products, it was its security and privacy, the way it encrypted communication across its network that made it the only game in town.
In 2010, when governments threatened to “block encrypted BlackBerry corporate e-mail and messaging services if its security agencies were not granted access to them”, BlackBerry’s reply was:
“RIM also said it has drawn a firm line by insisting that any capabilities it provides to carriers for ‘lawful’ access purposes be limited by four main principles: Such access has to be legal, it must not exceed access imposed on RIM’s competitors, it does not change the security architecture for Blackberry enterprise customers, and does not require a country-specific deal that does not conform to RIM’s global standard for lawful access.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t heard or read a single word about this from the pundits on mainstream media, that BlackBerry’s selling point was its guarantee to privacy, i.e., its network was so secure that even BlackBerry didn’t have access to its users emails, which made the company what it was. That, however, changed when nations, starting with some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, demanded that the company provide backdoors to their networks so that they could spy on their customers:
“The home ministry, which has time and again shared with DoT its concerns over the security agencies’ inability to de-crypt messages shared over BlackBerry, has now asked DoT to sound out Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian firm that makes the BlackBerry device, that its services in India will face shutdown if its e-mail and other data services do not comply with formats that can be monitored by security and intelligence agencies.”
BlackBerry held out for as long as they could, making them unique when it came to protecting their customers privacy, but when the United States demanded the same, it was the final nail in the coffin for the company – the main feature that made them the envy of the industry and lead to customer loyalty was taken away from them. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a 2012 piece entitled, “How America’s Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear” (emphasis added):
“I think the most interesting, and probably revealing, example that I can give you about where we are in terms of surveillance in the United States is a really ironic and unintendedly amusing series of events that took place in mid-2011. What happened in mid-2011 was that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which as we know are very, very oppressive and hate freedom, they said that what they were going to do was ban the use of Blackberries and similar devices on their soil. The reason is that the corporation that produces Blackberries was either unable or unwilling to guarantee that Saudi and UAE intelligence agencies would be able to intercept all communications.
“And the governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were horrified by the prospect that people might be able to communicate on their soil without them being able to intercept and surveill their communication. And in response, they banned Blackberries.
“This created huge amounts of condemnation in the western world. Every American newspaper editorialized about how this showed how much these governments were the enemies of freedom, the Obama administration issued a stinging denunciation of both governments, saying that they were engaged in the kinds of oppression that we couldn’t tolerate. And yet, six weeks later, the New York Times reported that, ‘The Obama administration was preparing legislation to mandate that all services that enable communications’ — and I’m quoting from the New York Times – ‘to mandate that all services that enable communication, including in encrypted e-mail transmitters like Blackberry, social networking websites like Facebook, and software that allows direct pure messaging like Skype, be designed to ensure government surveillance,’ which is exactly the same principle that everyone can damn United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for.”
So while we watch this train wreck and feel the pain of thousands of people losing their jobs, keep in mind that the main reason for BlackBerry’s downfall was not its inability to innovate, it was our governments’ inability to spy on their own citizens forcing them to require BlackBerry to change their business model which caused the company to collapse.
Have we learned any lessons from this fiasco? Not even close considering the hard-on that the U.S. government has had for Edward Snowden. As Mark Zuckerberg points out in the following insincere interview, “I think the government blew it”.
Mark Zuckerberg Comments on the NSA | Disrupt SF 2013
We can expect many more companies, especially Western technology companies, to go the way of BlackBerry once certain governments begin to realize that there is now a huge opportunity available to them for new industries centered on protecting company and individual privacy.