October 13, 2011 8:21 pm

RIM founder endures a week of frustration

It has been a tough and “frustrating” week for Mike Lazaridis, Research In Motion’s founder and co-chief executive. For most of the week he has been leading a team of RIM engineers who struggled to get the BlackBerry network back up and running following a hardware failure in the company’s network operations centre in Slough near London.

That incident, followed by the failure of a back-up system designed for just such an event, ultimately led to service disruptions for up to 40m BlackBerry users at a time when they face an expanding range of alternatives, including new handsets from rivals such as Apple and Google’s Android partners.

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As Mr Lazaridis conceded in an apologetic YouTube video posted yesterday, the network disruption has seriously eroded trust in the reliability of a service that was perhaps BlackBerry’s biggest selling point.

The incident has also highlighted how involved and committed the 50-year-old Turkish-born engineer, who arrived in Canada with his family when he was five years old, still is in the business he founded in the 1980s. Indeed, it is clear in interviews with Mr Lazaridis that he still considers RIM “his baby”, even though he shares the chief executive’s job with Jim Balsillie, and RIM has long been a public quoted company.

“Mike”, as he is universally known within RIM, is an engineer’s engineer, a hands on manager who delights in showing off the latest BlackBerrys and clearly feels deeply hurt when things – such as the network outage – go wrong.

As a schoolboy, Mr Lazarides made iodine bombs, won a prize for reading all the science books in the Windsor, Ontario, public library and fixed televisions and stereo systems for “Coke and cookies”. In 1979, he enrolled at the University of Waterloo to study for a degree in electrical engineering but did not graduate because two months before he was due to start, he won a contract from General Motors to build a computer-controlled display.

The GM contract, with a small government grant and a $15,000 loan from his parents, enabled Mr Lazaridis, Mike Barnstijn and Douglas Fregin to launch RIM. By 1999, after focusing his research on wireless data transmission, Mr Lazaridis and RIM were ready to launch the first BlackBerry, which delivered wireless email to mobile subscribers using what was then a unique “push” email technology.

Over the next few years, the BlackBerry’s popularity soared. By 2005, the BlackBerry smartphone was the hottest wireless handheld device and the one that government ministers, politicians, corporate executives and actors and rap stars wanted to be seen with. With RIM’s success, Mr Lazaridis became a Canadian-dollar billionaire and one of Canada’s richest men.

But since the debut of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, RIM has struggled to adapt to a new market dominated by touchscreen smartphones. Mr Lazaridis is still known in the global wireless community as a visionary, innovator and engineer of extraordinary talent but, with RIM now under attack from rivals and dissident shareholders angered about the company’s share price collapse in recent months, he is also being forced to spend more time in the public limelight.

For an intensely private person whose hobby is collecting fast cars, it is a role he does not always find easy – as perhaps his YouTube video shows. “He sounds defeated and like some PR told him to do it,” said one unimpressed communications consultant.

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