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November 22, 2005 6:52 pm

Mike Laziridis of Blackberry: Rich pickings attract rivals

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“It's not a product, it’s an experience.” In the mouths of most chief executives, such a remark would be a glib cliche.

When the man behind the BlackBerry says it, it’s an understatement.

The devotion Mike Lazaridis's “experience” inspires would make a religious cult leader jealous. For years it was the only mobile e-mail device that really worked properly, and over 3m executives have grasped it with both hands.

Nowadays, though, the competition has caught up. GoodTechnology, Microsoft, Seven and Visto all offer push-based e-mail similar to Blackberry.

Rival device makers are turning up the heat, producing e-mail-capable phones crammed with features such as WiFi and Qwerty keyboards with separate keys for the numbers, something BlackBerry users have to do without.

So where are BlackBerry’s next 3m users going to come from?

Mr Lazaridis was on his way back from Japan, which along with South Korea is one of the few industrialised countries where the BlackBerry is not sold. So could that be an area of possible expansion? He will confirm nothing.

How about music? Apple’s iPod music player is the only other device with the same cult-like following as the BlackBerry. Mr Lazaridis is an iPod fan “I don’t mind having two separate devices,” he says.

His competitors are keen to pack WiFi into their product, aiming at corporations which could cut their bills by directing mobile traffic within their office over their existing wireless networks for free. There is already a WiFi version of the BlackBerry, but it is only for niche environments like warehouses. Mr Lazaridis doesn't see much of a demand for it elsewhere.

And those who prefer other devices can still be part of the ”experience” – the BlackBerry software runs on a limited range of phones from Nokia, SonyEricsson and, next year, the Palm Treo.

The range of things you can do with a BlackBerry is still increasing. It is adding fast data networks, enabling quicker web browsing. It can run an impressive range of business applications, like customer relationship management applications from Salesforce.com or PeopleSoft. “And games! Lots of games!” says Mr Lazaridis.

However, the core of BlackBerry’s strategy to keep growing is to build on the things which already make it stand out.

“Security is the foundation of BlackBerry,” says Mr Lazaridis. “Security is quite a challenge for IT managers to deal with. It is one of the reasons they adopt BlackBerry.”

He adds: “When it comes to reliability and security you can be tempted to think it is just a veneer, and a lot of solutions are trying to implement it as if it was just a veneer,” he says.

The woodworking metaphor is apt, as Mr Lazaridis looks on his products with the same pride that a cabinetmaker would lavish on a fine mahogany dining chair.

BlackBerry’s design, support, and a good part of manufacturing happen on its campus in Waterloo, Ontario. This is rare in the electronics business, where a device might be designed in California, assembled in Taiwan and supported from Bangalore.

With the design and support people working in neighbouring offices, feedback from customers gets fed straight into new products.

This isn’t just major bugs and faults, which any company would track. It's any little quirk, anything users are phoning to ask for help with – any tiny bump on the road to perfect usability.

Mr Lazaridis pays personal attention to the fine sanding and polishing of the BlackBerry's user interface, chairing the weekly user interface meetings himself. But that kind of old-fashioned quality can be a tough sell in an industry which is more focused on low costs and disposability.

The competition will fight hard on both price and features, and give BlackBerry’s customers pause for thought.

But if the BlackBerry users of the world are as hooked as legend says they are, he shouldn’t have much to worry about.

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