Do the math

The CEO of the company behind the BlackBerry shows how getting the sums right can solve any problem.

Do the math

Mathematics is the key to solving problems for Research In Motion's founder and co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis. His company, famous for bringing the BlackBerry device to the world, has been dealing with the mathematics of 'wireless data' since 1988.

"We originally got into wireless data in 1988 because it was an opportunity to link into data systems for the emergency services," explains Lazaridis.

In 1988, wireless data networks were fairly new. Protocols, gateways and user interfaces had to be built from scratch. However, the real pay-off for Lazaridis did not occur until the end of the 1990s - when enterprises discovered an appetite for sending and receiving email.

For most of that decade, Research In Motion (RIM) gradually worked on the mathematics to refine the compression and security algorithms that were to culminate in the launch of the first BlackBerry service in 1999.

By this point, the business world had already embraced email and RIM did not find it difficult to persuade business organisations of the benefits of delivering email to their mobile workforce.

Handheld Porsche

Today, the BlackBerry device has been emulated by a number of manufacturers such as Palm, Samsung and HTC - and many of them are running Windows Mobile 6 or white label solutions. Therefore Lazaridis's task at hand is to ensure that the BlackBerry brand maintains its leadership.

"I believe that we still hold the iconic look. It's recognised that it's our innovation," he declares and he equates the design to the Porsche - his favourite car.

"The BlackBerry has the lowest cost of ownership if you factor in the security environment and the over-the-air management facility," he explains.

"You have to take into account the total bill from your carrier partner and factor in roaming charges, breakages and all the other things in these devices. BlackBerry comes out ahead. 

If it wasn't true, we wouldn't be the number one product in the market place."

Recently, the BlackBerry has also made it into the handbags of Hollywood 'A' listers. Now the BlackBerry Pearl (also available in red and pink) is gaining ground with the mass of consumers as operators provide affordable tariffs. No longer is the BlackBerry solely a premium solution for businesses.

Despite consumer interest, Lazaridis believes that the same sweet spot that exists for enterprises will also hold true for the rest of us. Therefore, do not expect some fashionista makeover from RIM or greater emphasis on 3G services.

According to Lazaridis, RIM puts a lot of credence on getting its sums right and stressing the laws of physics. The response to any deviation in their business model would be "have you done your math?"

"Putting all the bells and whistles aside - the device is great at delivering email because it does exactly what it says on the tin. It gives you the same experience whether you are on 3G or GPRS. Mobile broadband is not why people buy BlackBerrys," says Lazaridis.

"Capacity is very different in wireless. This is the reason why the spectrum is so expensive. We saw how many billions were spent on 3G spectrum because it is a limited resource. I would argue that, although we have experienced broadband speed, we have not achieved broadband capacity and this capacity issue is going to be there for a long time."

"The battery issue is another limiting factor. You have to right size all this stuff. We need to keep in mind how battery technology is today and broadband data delivered to a 3G device would quickly deplete battery power."

Lazaridis points out that over 80 per cent of the world is still running GPRS or Edge and therefore there is a huge untapped market to provide high performance and low cost devices.

Even the entry of the iPhone 2.0 upgrade in June - where Steve Jobs has announced Microsoft Exchange connectivity - does not phase Lazaridis and his team. In fact, he sees it as an opportunity.

"They have brought so much advertising and awareness in this space that they have accelerated the move towards the smartphones. We have customers coming into stores with a feature phone and they are walking out with a BlackBerry," says Lazaridis.

This is borne out by RIM's recent sales. The company recently announced its best sales to date in the fourth quarter of last year - when many expected the BlackBerry to be hammered by the iPhone.

"Not everyone can type on a piece of glass. Every laptop and virtually every other phone has a tactile keyboard. I think our design gives us an advantage," indicates Lazaridis.

Despite this, RIM is not resting on its laurels. The company recently announced the establishment of a new research and development facility in Bochum, Germany whose university has a world class reputation in telecommunications and security technology. For RIM, the advantage of locating their facility on the edge of their campus is a no-brainer.

"Our headquarters are right on the campus of Waterloo University - the number one engineering school in Canada and the largest math faculty in North America. We have a huge co-op programme and engineering student programme with them. There is a great advantage being next to an engineering university or a math school. It's great for recruiting and great for research."

Lazaridis also draws attention to the culture of engineering and precision and the great deal of experience available in Bochum. RIM also boasts strong relationships with the carriers who also have facilities nearby. Not only is there a wealth of talented research and graduates, but at the same time there is also a large number of companies on the campus that are in the telecom space.

Waterloo

Mike Lazaradis' scientific ambitions extend far beyond wireless email. In 1999, he established the Perimeter Institute of Physics in Waterloo as a think tank for the leading theoretical physicists with a donation of $100m.

To date, the institute has partnered with hundreds of leading academics and has signed up with 40 universities around the world with its various programmes and scholarships. Theoretical work on quantum gravity, quantum information science, and the foundations of quantum mechanics is undertaken at The Perimeter Institute. In addition, Lazaridis recently helped establish the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo with a further $50m contribution.

The Institute of Quantum Computing, Lazaridis explains, has been established to bring together engineering, computer science, mathematics, chemistry and physics under one multidisciplinary umbrella.

Lazaridis believes that these are the most exciting fields to be in right now: "What I am realising is that there is a tremendous opportunity for spin-off because Moore's Law runs out about 2017 to 2020. At that point, computers will be working at the atomic level scale - and of course, you cannot go any smaller than atoms with current techniques."

"As we approach the end of Moore's Law and single atom quantum effects start to power what is going on, we have a choice: We can use the information that we are getting from quantum research to minimise the effect or we can start utilising those effects to provide computing like functions."

For Lazaridis, this represents gratitude to the University where he serves as Chancellor. "We have tapped all the unique skills of the university," he says. "We have a computer science faculty; we were the first in Canada with a Computer Centre. We were the only campus that was visited by [Bill] Gates in his last tour that was not in the United States.

"In fact The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation graciously donated because they also recognise how it has been a source of talent for their company for years.

"We take for granted and forget what universities are really good at. They commercialise everything that they have taught through their students and their graduates.

"These students will move into commerce and government - and that is the product of the research that has gone on in the university. It is the students and not the research itself.

"When you understand that, then you realise that quality of businesses and governments of the future are going to be dependent on the quality of the graduates and people who go through the universities. That's why its so important to invest in your universities and your research." 

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