It was Canada’s technological superman and the world’s obsession.
BlackBerry inspired a new word, crackberry, and legions of devotees including Barack Obama, who said in 2009 before he was sworn in as U.S. president: “They’re going to pry it out of my hands.”
Less than four short years later, the company that put Waterloo, Ont., on the map is shedding employees by the thousands, with 4,500 more expected to be laid off soon.
“Canada’s shining technology star has fallen from the heavens,” said Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London.
The psychological blow is harder in Ontario as its native son, formerly known as Research in Motion, shrinks from employing 19,000 to what will soon be 6,750.
But Levy believes Canada’s tech sector will ride out the storm and emerge stronger with talent spread across growing companies.
Waterloo will absorb many BlackBerry refugees: Stanford’s Startup Genome ranks it as the world’s 16th-most fertile grounds for startups. Other Canadian communities should be on alert, too.
“Every company in Ontario should be thinking about how they can get access to BlackBerry talent,” said Iain Klugman, head of Communitech that supports more than 1,000 technology companies in Waterloo.
The avalanche of pink slips will bury some of the laid off, at least in the short term, said Levy, but in three years, the sector should emerge stronger than before.
Sammy Wahab’s move last year from BlackBerry to a small startup was personal: His daughter had diabetes and he’d seen how health professionals struggled to communicate with one another.
By 2012, Wahab had been ready to move on after a four-year tenure playing a key role with the Waterloo giant where he had helped direct which technologies to invest in.
The new venture, called Mozzaz, produces technology to help people with disabilities — its TalkingTILES enables people with speech disorders to express their thoughts and needs.
Mike Galbraith jumped from his role as senior vice-president at BlackBerry in August to Thalmic Labs that makes armbands that detect electrical impulses and wirelessly transit precise directions to computers. It’s a technology that can be used for gaming, business and a host of applications developers are dreaming up. The product, called MYO, won’t be shipped until the spring but more than 30,000 people have placed pre-orders while a YouTube video has generated more than three million views.
Hongwei Liu knows how to create a map and follow it — so he decided as a student of electrical engineering to forego homework. It’s not that he didn’t care he would lose 10% off his marks. But working at BlackBerry during the day and at his own startup at night, the 19-year-old simply had no time for extras.
His startup, called MappedIn, seems on the way to a winning mark. Founded in 2010 with three other students, it’s a sort of Google Maps for indoor spaces, allowing consumers to navigate using smartphones or interactive terminals and retailers to better track shopping patterns.
Michael Litt took what he learned in an internship at BlackBerry to build Vidyard that creates video platforms for companies that are fine-tuned to meet their needs, a venture that drew investment from the founder of YouTube. His time at BlackBerry taught him a critical lesson, one that was a mantra there, and one, when not followed at the Waterloo giant, was its unmaking: Build something people want.
2000: Stock peaks at $260 a share.
2006: Webster’s New World College Dictionary names crackberry (someone addicted to his BlackBerry) the new word of the year.
2008: iPhone sales top BlackBerry sales.
2010: Users in U.S. peaks at 21 million — it’s downhill from here. BlackBerry passed by Google’s Android.
April 19, 2011: PlayBook tablet released to slow sales.
July 2011: 2,000 jobs cut.
2012: 5,000 jobs will be lost by end of fiscal 2013.
January 2013: Company changes name to BlackBerry.
Sept. 20, 2013: Added layoff of 4,500 employees by end of 2013.