It was Oracle.
And I don’t mean “an Oracle” in the allegorical way Shakespeare had it where it was MacBeth’s prophecy-fueled hubris what incited the incidents (though it is pretty easy to cast anything in the mobile space as a reimaging of the Scottish Play). I mean the company Oracle was the primary agent of the the downfall of the company then-known as Research in Motion.
And they probably didn’t even mean to do it.
To be clear: this is my theory, these are my opinions, and all of it’s based on what I can remember from nearly a decade ago.
At the end of June 2007, Apple released the iPhone in the US. It was an odd little device. It didn’t have apps or GPS or 3G (wouldn’t have any of those until July 2008), it was only available on the AT&T network (a one-year exclusivity agreement), and it didn’t have copy-paste (that took until June 2009).
Worst of all, it didn’t even run Java.
Java was incredibly important in the 2000s. It was the only language both powerful enough on the day’s mobile hardware to be useful and sandboxed enough from that hardware to be safe to run.
And the iPhone didn’t have it! In fact, in the release of the SDK agreement in 2008, Apple excluded Java (and browser engines like Firefox’s Gecko) by disallowing the running of interpreted code.
It is understandable, then, that the executives in Research in Motion weren’t too worried. The press immediately called the iPhone a BlackBerry Killer… but they’d done that for the Motorola Q9H, the Nokia E61i, and the Samsung BlackJack. (You don’t have to feel bad if you’ve never heard of them. I only know they exist because I worked for BlackBerry starting in June 2008.)
I remember a poorly-chroma-keyed presentation featuring then-CTO David Yach commanding a starship that destroyed each of these devices in turn with our phasers of device portfolio depth, photon torpedoes of enterprise connectivity, and warp factor BlackBerry OS 4.6. Clearly we could deal with this Apple upstart the way we dealt with the others: by continuing to be excellent at what we did.
Still, a new competitor is still a new competitor. Measures had to be taken.
Especially when, in November of 2007, it was pretty clear that Google had stepped into the ring with the announcement of Android.
Android was the scarier competitor. Google was a well-known software giant and they had an audacious plan to marry their software expertise (and incredible buying, hiring, and lawyering power) with chipsets, handsets, and carrier reach from dozens of companies including Qualcomm, Motorola, and T-mobile.
The Android announcements exploded across the boardrooms of RIM’s Waterloo campus.
But with competition comes opportunity.
You see, Android ran Java. Well, code written in Java could run on Android. And this meant they had the hearts and minds of every mobile developer in the then-nascent app ecosystem. All they had to do was not call it Java and they were able to enable a far more recent version of Java’s own APIs than BlackBerry was allowed and run a high-performance non-Java virtual machine called Dalvik.
BlackBerry couldn’t match this due to the terms of its license agreement, while Google didn’t even need to pay Sun Microsystems (Java’s owner) a per-device license fee.
Quickly, a plan was hatched: Project Highlander (no, I’m not joking). It was going to be the one platform for all BlackBerry devices that was going to allow us to wield the sword of the Katana filesystem (still not joking) and defeat our enemies. Yes, even the execs were dorks at RIM in early 2009.
Specifically, RIM was going to adopt a new Operating System for our mobile devices that would run Dalvik, allowing them to not only finally evolve past the evolutionary barriers Sun had refused to lift from in front of BlackBerry Java…. but to also eat Google’s lunch at the same time. No matter how much money Google poured into app development for Android, we would reap the benefit through Highlander’s Android compatibility.
By essentially joining Google in the platform war against the increasingly-worrisome growth of Apple, we would be able to punch above our weight in the US. And by not running Android, we could keep our security clearance and be sold places Google couldn’t reach.
It was to be perfect: the radio core running RIM’s low-power, high-performance Nessus OS talking over secure hardware to the real-time QNX OS atop which would be running an Android-compatible Dalvik VM managing the applications RIM’s developers had written in the language they had spent years mastering: Java. With the separation of the radio and application cores we were even planning how to cut a deal with mobile carriers to only certify the radio core so we’d be free to update the user-facing parts of the OS without having to go through their lengthy, costly, irritating process.
A pity it never happened.
RIM’s end properly began on April 20, 2009, when Oracle announced it was in agreement to purchase Sun Microsystems, maker of Java.
Oracle, it was joked, was a tech company where the size of its Legal department outstripped that of the rest of its business units… combined.
Even I, a lowly grunt working on the BlackBerry Browser, knew what was going to happen next.
After Oracle completed its acquisition of Sun it took only seven months for them to file suit against Google over Android’s use of Java.
These two events held monumental importance for Research in Motion:
Oracle had bought Sun, which meant there was now effectively zero chance of a new version of mobile Java which would allow BlackBerry Java to innovate within the terms of RIM’s license to Sun.
Oracle had sued Google, which meant RIM would be squashed like a bug under the litigant might of Sun’s new master if it tried to pave its own not-Android way to its own, modern Java-alike.
All of RIM’s application engineers had lived and breathed Java for years. And now that expertise was to be sequestered, squandered, and then removed.
While Java-based BlackBerry 6 and 7 devices continued to keep the lights on under steadily decreasing order volumes, the BlackBerry PlayBook was announced, delayed, released, and scrapped. The PlayBook was such a good example of a cautionary tale that BlackBerry 10 required an extra year of development to rewrite most of the things it got wrong.
Under that extra year of pressure-cooker development, BlackBerry 10 bristled with ideas. This was a problem. Instead of evolving with patient direction, adding innovation step-by-step, guiding users over the years from 2009 to BlackBerry 10’s release in 2013, all of the pent up ideas of user interaction, user experience paradigms, and content-first design landed in users’ laps all at once.
This led to confusion, which led to frustration, which led to devices being returned.
BlackBerry 10 couldn’t sell, and with users’ last good graces spent, the company suddenly-renamed BlackBerry just couldn’t find something it could release that consumers would want to buy.
Massed layoffs, begun during the extra year of BlackBerry 10 development with the removal of entire teams of Java developers, continued as the company tried to resize itself to the size of its market. Handset prices increased to sweeten fallen margins. Developers shuffled over to the Enterprise business unit where BlackBerry was still paying bonuses and achieving sales targets.
The millions of handsets sold and billions of dollars revenue were gone. And yet, despite finding itself beneath the footfalls of fighting giants, BlackBerry was not dead — is still not dead.
Its future may not lie with smartphones, but when I left BlackBerry in late 2015, having myself survived many layoffs and reorganizations, I left with the opinion that it does indeed have a future.
Maybe it’ll focus on its enterprise deployments and niche device releases.
Maybe it’ll find a product millions of consumers will need.
Maybe it’ll be bought by Oracle.