Adrienne Arsenault: A behind-the-scenes look at BlackBerry's strategy

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault takes an unprecedented look inside the high-tech Waterloo, Ont., complex where earnest young programmers hope their work on the BlackBerry 10 smartphone will spawn a comeback.

BlackBerry's bounce back

10 years ago
Duration 16:00
BlackBerry invited CBC's Adrienne Arsenault to follow the company's critical weeks before the launch of its new BlackBerry 10 phones, as even its top execs wondered if this was their moment of redemption

If we heard the sentiment once on this project, we heard it a dozen times.

"You know, no one's ever seen this part of the building," followed by "you know, if someone had called and asked for this level of access a year ago, we wouldn't have even taken the call."

Message received.

This is a new day for the makers of the BlackBerry smartphone. Those at the top have had to stop, have a good think and park the hubris at the doors of the Waterloo, Ont., complex. 

The days of being closed and cocky seem over. Curiously, it seems that it's only when there are non-Canadians at the helm that you see the rather Canadian earnestness at work within those walls. 

Adrienne Arsenault speaks with Vivek Bhardwaj, the head of software for the new BlackBerry, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (CBC)

Every now and then over a period of two months, we were given exclusive access to the prep work leading to today's launch of the BlackBerry 10.

That meant sitting in as the head of software for the new BlackBerry, 29-year-old Vivek Bhardwaj, heard comments from industry analysts that didn't exactly make his day: "It's a bit plain" or "Why isn't there a home button?"

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He heard the confusion as people learned there'd be two new products to launch, one without a keyboard and one with. But they won't go on sale at the same time.

We watched as another 29-year-old with a big job, Jeff Gadway, head of marketing for BB10, engaged in hand-to-hand marketing combat to convince buyers they will want the phone. "Hand-to-hand" as in moving between chatting up top executives at tech companies to briefing the young people who work the carrier kiosks at malls. 

Not so much surprise

Forget the Apple-esque approach of saving the goods for the big reveal. The marketing plan behind the BlackBerry 10 seemed to be about getting it in the hands of those who could create early buzz. So that takes a little surprise out of the surprise. It could be a terrible idea. Or, as they so clearly hope, it could be brilliant. 

In the company's Waterloo cafeteria, beside the large BlackBerry sign indicating the company is officially no longer called RIM, there is a full chalkboard.

On a chalkboard at RIM headquarters, scribbles by employees are often cheerful 'Go get 'em' types of messages ahead of the BlackBerry 10 launch, but a few reveal some of the angst they have been through. (CBC)

On it are the scribbles of employees and while most are cheerful "Go get 'em" types of messages to celebrate the launch, a few reveal a little of the angst they've been through.

"Have courage" reads one. "Eat the Apple" reads another, and "BlackBerry will make history AGAIN."

There's no sugarcoating it. Everyone still working there, and they've lost a huge chunk of their workforce, understands the BlackBerry 10 really must be, as tech blogger Robert Scoble put it, "the stop the bleeding phone." 

Part of the more open approach is being open about messing up, to talk honestly, as Gadway did about where the company went wrong.

"I think it's fair to admit that we missed a cycle of innovation a couple years ago," he said, explaining what those in the tech world saw as sadly obvious.

"The move to 4G was focussed on building on our presence in emerging markets. And we were late to the 4G game in the Americas." 

Another language

The consequences of that were pretty clear. Not that long ago, BlackBerry owned roughly 44 per cent of the smartphone market in the United States. Now, it's just 1.1 per cent.

The promise of the BlackBerry 10 representing a comeback seems to be the fuel along with heavy doses of caffeine that keeps the young programmers showing up to work every day. 

We watched them one day talk the odd language of code among themselves. They seemed to be checking and rechecking the Wi-Fi capabilities of the BB10, but I'd be lying if I said I understood a single word.

At the RIM complex, mirrors mounted on computers mean there's no sneaking up behind the young programmers to see what they're doing. (CBC)

Again, came the sentence, "you know, outsiders aren't usually allowed in here."

It is a universe so typically security conscious that the computers all have rear view mirrors with RIM SECURITY emblazoned on them. There's no sneaking up behind these guys to peer in on what they're doing. 

Tight security seems to be what the business community appreciated about the BlackBerry and the programmers genuinely believe it will help sell this one, too.

Planning the party

So confident that with nine days left to launch they were already planning the party.

Once again the earnest streak revealed itself: talk of skating and swimming for their families and a chance to put their feet up and watch the next step.

The most optimistic among them say that next step will be the moment when you start to see BlackBerrys in a lot more hands again. 

Yes, they know Canadians are scared of another Nortel. Yes, they know they got complacent and screwed up. Yes, they know the Playbook didn't deliver. And yes, they do believe they have it right this time.

What's not clear is whether the market or the public will have an ounce of patience left if they're wrong.