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Q&A With: Mike Lazaridis

The cofounder of Research in Motion spoke with Spectrum Online about the BlackBerry maker's R&D efforts, market expansion, and future directions

8 min read

Mike Lazaridis is President and Co-CEO of Research In Motion (RIM), a company he founded while studying at the University of Waterloo, Canada. At RIM, Lazaridis is responsible for product strategy, research and development, product development, and manufacturing. He is known in the global wireless community as a visionary, innovator, and engineer of extraordinary talent. Since founding RIM, he has received more than 30 patents and dozens of awards for his innovations in wireless technology and software.

Lazaridis supports his community through philanthropic gifts made possible by his success in business. His most noted commitment established the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in 2000. In its brief history, Perimeter has established itself as a leading center for fundamental research. Lazaridis was named Canada's "Nation Builder of the Year" for 2002 by readers of The Globe and Mail (Toronto). He holds an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo and in June 2003 was named the university's eighth chancellor.

This interview was conducted prior to the recent patent settlement between RIM and NTP.

( Spectrum profiled Lazaridis earlier in this column:/careers/careerstemplate.jsp?ArticleId=p060303.)

Spectrum Online: What’s something about your company that people don’t necessarily know?

Mike Lazaridis : Wow. Well, I think one of the things that I’ve spoken about is the fact that Research In Motion is entirely focused on this market space. We’re a relatively large company. We’ve got well over 4000 employees. And we don’t just package stuff. We actually design and manufacture our own product. We’re ISO 9001 registered across the board, across the company. We run SAP, we’ve been running SAP for many years, and we have a PDB process in place to make sure our products are designed and tracked and offer the right feature sets and the right quality and meet their schedules. So, it’s a very professional environment, but it’s also one that the engineers and developers working here find very rewarding, because they’re able to work on a product from beginning to end on all aspects of it. So, that’s pretty exciting.

The other thing is that I’m a real believer in heavy-duty research. And we tend to pride ourselves on the kinds of research facilities that we have here: the laboratories, the design environments, the CAD tools, the IT systems that we have in place, and the manufacturing plant. We really take this very, very seriously. We’re in this to produce the best products we can. We believe in making our products better from year to year. We also believe in having a lot of control over our products to make sure we provide the level of quality and performance in every aspect of the product we manufacture. So, I think that’s a little different.

Sometimes I think we take for granted that all companies are made alike. I believe the reason we’ve been successful, the reason we’ve been able to build such a strong brand and global presence, has been because we really built an amazing company, an amazing culture, and we’re not afraid to put in the investments and hard work to make sure that our company is equipped in resources and experience to produce world-class products that benefit our customers. And quite frankly, I think our customers are quite devoted to us.

SOL: What kinds of things do you think people will be able to do with a Blackberry in five or ten years?

ML: Oh, gosh. Five or ten years. You know, I never think out ten years for actual products. I think out ten years for things like quantum computing and theoretical physics, which is something that I’m very passionate about and the subject of much of my philanthropy. I think within the next five years you’re going to find that devices are going to become very easy to use, even easier than Blackberrys are today. I think our customers like the Blackberry experience mainly because it’s just so easy to use.

"That’s one of the great things about technology and global business and investing in research and in people. I think that you’re constantly surprised by the opportunities you’re presented."

I remember being at a trade show once and one of our customers came up to me and said: Mike, what do you think is the most important feature of a Blackberry? Of course, I could think of ten. And right away, he answered the question before I could make a fool of myself, and he said, "It’s so easy to use, you could pick it up and use it within 10 minutes." And since then, I’ve really focused on that. I really believe that that is a very important thing in today’s environment, where things are getting ever-more complicated and ever-more unreliable and ever-more insecure. I think that one of the things that I believe is becoming a core competency and a core feature of the Blackberry is that it’s so dependable and it’s so reliable and it’s so easy to use. Sometimes we take for granted all the things the Blackberry accomplishes behind the scenes to make sure you have access to your email, your attachments, your Web sites, your services.

SOL: What do you think is the main thing that sets the Blackberry apart from some of the new cellphones that have similar features?

ML: I think Blackberry is a special experience. We didn’t go out to make a phone. We didn’t go out to make a computer. We didn’t even go out to make a PDA. What we try to build is, sort of, the ultimate communications experience. We designed a product that basically kept you in touch with your information, and kept you connected to all the people that mattered to you, in such a way that you didn’t really have to do anything. In fact, one of the great things about a Blackberry is it sits on your belt and really you don’t deal with it unless it lets you know there’s something to deal with. I think, again, it’s so transparent in its operation that sometimes we can take for granted what it’s accomplishing.

The studies that have been done on Blackberry have shown us, quite frankly, that the return on investment is so high that it's embarrassing to publish the figures. I think one of the things that people will attribute to Blackberry is that it really accelerates your business processes, and it also brings a great deal of discipline and accuracy to the decision process. And I think that when you think about it, you say, well, is that because it’s a cellphone or because it’s a computer, and that question is kind of obsolete. What we’re talking about is that Blackberry provides services and an experience that lets you get your work done and lets you stay connected in a way that’s both transparent and fully immersed.

SOL: Do you see Blackberry expanding more internationally, and do different countries offer different technological opportunities?

ML: Well, as you know, the Blackberry is available on many different technologies and well over 100 networks around the world. Again, what’s interesting about it though is that it’s the same experience everywhere. Years ago, we adopted the Java Virtual Machine as our environment. And because of that we’ve been able to provide a very consistent experience across the board on all our products and all our network technologies in all the different countries. That’s very important, because from an IT point of view, you don’t have to teach your users more than once. You only need one set of educational and maintenance procedures. So, I think that’s something that really does set it apart.

Blackberry already is expanding internationally. We’re doing very well, obviously, in North America. We’re also starting to do extremely well in Europe, in Southeast Asia, and, of course, we’ve been working to get it into China. We’re already in Hong Kong. So, I would say that the Blackberry already is international, it’s an international brand, and its success is growing internationally.

SOL: Are there more opportunities overseas for Blackberry to take advantage of technologies like paying with your cellphone?

ML: I would say that paying with your cellphone is something that I’ve seen in Japan, I think it’s been there for a while. I would say that, again, the products that we’re producing are very much for the enterprise and the professional consumer—the self-employed, the consultant, the small business owner. And in those kinds of markets what they’re looking for is a different experience. I think one of the things we’ve done is to try to concentrate on providing the ultimate experience for them and meeting their needs, rather than trying to be all things to all people. That really goes towards the appeal that Blackberry has and how it’s able to march to a different drummer.

SOL: Did you expect your company to have the success it has?

ML: I think that success is relative. I think that we’ve done very well. I couldn’t have predicted that we’d be in the position we’re in today and enjoying the benefits of that. On the other hand, I think that there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to come. That’s one of the great things about technology and global business and investing in research and in people. I think that you’re constantly surprised by the opportunities you’re presented. The most difficult decisions tend to be what not to do next as opposed to what you should do next.

SOL: You founded the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and donate a lot of money to physics research. What made you interested in philanthropy?

ML: Gosh, I’ve been excited about physics for years. I started to see that there’s a crisis coming where, based on Moore’s Laws predictions, as transistors and lithography and integrated circuits become smaller and smaller every 18 months or so, we’re going to reach the point where things become the size of atoms. And that’s expected to happen anywhere between 2015 and 2020. Of course, there’s always going to be that last tweaking in the process; but I doubt we’ll be able to keep Moore’s Law going past 2025.

Now what that means, though, is that as we approach those limits, we’re going to need new ways of performing the type of computation we do today and performing the switching and computing functions that we perform today, including some of the communications functions. One of the interesting things that happen at that scale is that we have to start relying more on quantum processes as opposed to classical mechanics. Quantum processes, though, are very different. On the one hand, they pose some serious challenges to the engineers and scientists who are going to be producing products that small. On the other hand, researchers have shown, have demonstrated, that we can take advantage of what appears to be a complication or limit and make it work for us, to help us provide much more powerful cryptography or much more powerful computing technology that, quite frankly, is orders of magnitude more advanced than what we have today. Because of that, I realized that there’s an opportunity for a focused investment and a focused cluster of experimental researchers that can tackle some of these interesting problems and challenges. So, it’s just something that the opportunity--and my particular position in life--allowed me to participate in. I think it’s going to benefit not just this community and this city, or this university, I think it’s going to hopefully benefit the country and beyond.

SOL: Is there something going on at Perimeter right now, or something that’s come out of it, that you’re particularly proud of?

ML: Well, with Perimeter, the first thing is, of course, it’s only been there for about four years. And in terms of physics, that’s a very, very short time. But even so, we have built a very strong reputation worldwide. We’ve been able to attract a lot of researchers and postdoctoral students. A lot of papers have been published. But more importantly, we’ve been able to get a lot of different researchers together, both permanent residents and visitors. We’ve had seminars here, but we’ve also been doing a great deal of outreach. The outreach is sort of the other half of what I’ve commissioned Perimeter to do, to get out there and make sure the public has an appreciation for the importance of science and research and how it currently matters to their lives and how it’s going to matter in the future. Because, ultimately, I think this kind of research needs to be supported by the public; and if we don’t have appreciation for them, how can we expect them to make wise decisions for the future?

SOL: Anything else you’d like to add for engineers?

ML: I think it’s an exciting field they’ve chosen. It’s one that I would never hesitate to do again. I think that as technology gets more advanced, as our tools get more advanced, as our manufacturing techniques get more advanced, the possibilities are endless for them. I think the real challenge is going to be having the courage and the will and foresight to invest in the basic sciences that we’re going to need [in order] to come up with the breakthroughs that will help us define the technologies of the future, because that’s really the challenge.

About the Author

Lauren Aaronson is a science and technology writer based in New York.

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