Never mind that, with a personal fortune estimated at $2.7 billion, Jim Balsillie is worth more than Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton combined. When the business brain behind Canada's Research in Motion (RIM) maker of the BlackBerry smart phone, with annual revenue of $15 billion talks classic rock, the intense 49-year-old entrepreneur reverts to a starstruck 16-year-old. "I love Neil Young," Balsillie, a co-CEO of RIM, enthuses about a fellow Canadian. Then he names a few more artists on his top-10 list: Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Tragically Hip.
The advantage of being a billionaire is that Balsillie can hire some of his favorite bands, as he has done with Van Halen and Aerosmith, for company gigs. And he gets to partner with supergroup U2 by becoming a lead sponsor of its current 360 Tour.
Rock is Balsillie's decompression valve, the thing that lets him come down to earth from 30,000 ft., which is where he spends nearly half his time, shuttling between continents to grab face time with suppliers, developers and carriers. Partnership building is more important today than ever before for Canada's biggest tech company, which operates from Waterloo, Ont., about 70 miles west of Toronto. That's because RIM's iconic BlackBerry is no longer the category-killing "CrackBerry" in the $100 billion smart-phone universe it created. "The market has always been hypercompetitive," says Balsillie, shrugging off the threats from new rivals. "The innovation cycle has accelerated."
Nowhere is this more true than in the nascent tablet-computer business, inaugurated by Apple with the iPad, which is expected to sell more than 10 million units in its first year. RIM has been working on a tablet for some time, but the company must be kicking itself for missing a chance to redefine mobile computing, as it did with the first BlackBerry smart phone 11 years ago.
Although it missed out on a first-mover advantage, RIM can still silence its critics by revolutionizing the tablet market and at the same time rejuvenating its smart-phone franchise. The company knows its fate hangs in the balance. RIM's stock is trading at $58 per share on NASDAQ, down from $150 two years ago, on investor fears that its glory days are history. In the iPad's wake, RIM rushed to unveil its tablet, dubbed the BlackBerry PlayBook, with much hoopla in San Francisco in September. PlayBook won't hit stores before the first quarter of 2011, but RIM is convinced it has a slumbering tiger on its hands. "It changes the game because we're making mobile fit the Web, not the other way around," says Balsillie.
What does that mean? RIM has figured out a way to squeeze a full computing platform into a tablet, which is a bit like fitting the Incredible Hulk into an Armani suit. The PlayBook will deliver the entire Web at the same speed as a home computer can, without the need for special apps that repackage and abbreviate mobile content. "The PlayBook won't just be a glorified smart phone," says Mike Lazaridis, RIM's other co-CEO, referring to Apple's iPad. That's because PlayBook runs on software from QNX, a company specializing in wireless broadband services that RIM acquired in April for $200 million from Connecticut-based Harman International Industries. RIM opted for QNX because even the latest version of its BlackBerry OS did not offer the kind of Web fidelity it was looking for.