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Ex-BlackBerry CEO knows why the iPhone won, but still uses a Bold

Ex-BlackBerry CEO knows why the iPhone won, but still uses a Bold

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BlackBerry couldn't compete with Apple when the latter launched the iPhone in 2007, and attempts to do so crippled the once-dominant phone maker, according to ex-BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Speaking about BlackBerry this week for the first time in public since he left his position in 2012, Balsillie told Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff — the authors of the new book Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry that fear of Apple's new device forced the Canadian company to rush out its own touchscreen smartphone, the BlackBerry Storm.

"With Storm we tried to do too much. It was a touch display, it was a clickable display, it had new applications, and it was all done in an incredibly short period of time and it blew up on us," Balsillie said on stage at Toronto's Empire Club. The stricken Storm had "a 100 percent return rate" for Verizon, a figure that caused the carrier — BlackBerry's largest customer — to demand $500 million in compensation and to push handsets made by other manufacturers. "That was the time I knew we couldn't compete on high-end hardware," Balsillie said. "We had to stick to the low end."

BlackBerry knew it couldn't compete on high-end hardware

On software, too, BlackBerry was slow to adapt to new challengers. Balsillie said he wanted to open the once-popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service for use on other devices, noting that the company actually made most of its money on services rather than hardware. But his advice was apparently ignored, and the software wasn't allowed onto Android and iOS until 2013 — long after the chat initiative was snatched by services such as WhatsApp.

Balsillie co-founded BlackBerry Limited — first known as Research in Motion — and presided over a period of runaway growth following the introduction of the original BlackBerry in 1999. The company maintained its success for a decade, snatching almost 50 percent of the phone market in 2009, but withered quickly soon after, beset by challenges from rivals like Apple and Google and hit with accusations of poor management.

Balsillie said his attempts to buy a hockey team never distracted him

While Balsillie admitted the company made mistakes, he was bullish in justifying several of his decisions. "There's a lot of punditry out there. If it was so easy to create a $20 billion company, everyone would do it," he said, arguing that his company was able to succeed even though he believes the Canadian government "doesn't understand the innovation economy." His leadership, he said, also helped the company stay afloat during the patent lawsuit NTP brought against BlackBerry in 2006. The phone maker eventually agreed on a $612 million settlement, an outcome that Balsillie said felt like he'd "survived a senseless accident that almost killed my child." The company was still able to sell its products, but the ex-CEO said he "wasn't doing happy dances."

When queried about his attempts to buy an NHL team and bring it to Ontario while still working at the head of BlackBerry (then RIM), Balsillie said that he was "never distracted" from running the company, and "never missed a day of work in 20 years." Now three years removed from the position, Balsillie says he still has affection for BlackBerry products. "I'm not a very sentimental guy," he told guests at Toronto's Empire Club, "but my smartphone is a BlackBerry Bold. You'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands."

"I also still use my PlayBook."