From Losing the Signal, pg 203:

The most compelling feature driving BlackBerry sales in the developing world wasn’t wireless e-mail but another application that had been included with devices since the mid-2000s: BlackBerry Messenger. While BlackBerry was losing the app race in North America, BBM was establishing itself as BlackBerry’s first “killer app” since wireless e-mail, and the first globally successful app of the smartphone era. In late 2008, 4 million people used BBM. Two years later the number reached 28 million, and by September 2011, it was 60 million.

And its most innovative defining characteristic was a simulated sense of presence:

The three struck upon the idea of creating a “data call”: simulating a phone call through a series of instant messages between BlackBerrys. Creating the data equivalent of an interactive voice call would require the “speaker,” or sender, to know his message was both delivered and received. The recipient would have to know that once she opened the message, the sender was informed it had been read. People would no longer send data messages into the void, unsure if they arrived or were read.

As they note on pg 206, the next generation of services succeeded through their capacity to be used across platforms:

BBM’s success was bound to spark competition, and in 2009 and 2010, a rash of rival mobile instant messaging services began appearing around the world, including WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, and KakaoTalk. Unlike BBM, they worked across multiple platforms other than BlackBerrys and drew millions of new users each month. The one that irked RIM the most was Kik Messenger.

But the refusal of RIM to open BBM across platforms meant that their early  lead was lost:

Kik was hatched by a University of Waterloo engineering and mechatronics student named Ted Livingston who had completed three co-op work terms at RIM, including time on BBM. In 2009 Livingston decided to forego his fourth year to develop his fledgling start-up. His initial plan was to develop a music-sharing service that worked with BBM, but after several months he decided to instead create a BBM-like chat application that worked on all smartphones. Livingston approached his former superiors in early 2010 and encouraged RIM to broaden BBM to work on non-BlackBerry devices. With its head start in mobile instant messaging, he believed RIM could crush any rivals if BBM was available on all platforms. He even told RIM in March 2010 he would stop developing Kik if BBM went “cross-platform.” But the company wasn’t interested. 14 “They absolutely refused and they said, ‘No, we won’t do that,’” Livingston said in a 2013 interview. 15 “To be fair, from their perspective, it was hard. They said, ‘People are buying BlackBerrys for BBM.’ That was a real risk.”

From Losing the Signal, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s history of Research In Motion, pg 179:

Bruised by the Storm experience and confused by the apparent rift between Balsillie and Lazaridis, executives feuded more frequently over turf and for the attention of their CEOs. Some turned to Don Morrison, the company’s kindly Father Time, who had long been the de facto friend-in-need for executives. Morrison in turn referred them to Donn Smith, the unorthodox personal life coach who had helped Balsillie pull himself back from the edge during the NTP crisis. Morrison had become a disciple after Balsillie sent his wife and him to see Smith when their marriage almost unraveled in the fall of 2009. After three days in British Columbia with Smith, Morrison says the marriage was saved. He was convinced he had found the antidote for RIM’s troubled management in Smith. The company wouldn’t be able to fix its problems unless its executives could reclaim their confidence and “internal perfection” through Smith’s I Am Energy program, Morrison thought. Over the next two years, Morrison would refer three dozen RIM executives to see his and Balsillie’s personal saviour, with costs covered by RIM’s leadership training budget.

There’s a great story in Losing the Signal, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s history of Research In Motion, relating how the management responded to the threat of the iPhone: promise an ever more amazing phone to wireless carriers and then simply demand that the engineering team produce it on a minimal timescale. From pg 142:

RIM was racing to roll out Bold phones for 2008; now it wanted to shift gears and create a new phone in nine months! It took eighteen months to create a new BlackBerry. A touch phone was something else. Although Storm would use BlackBerry’s existing operating system, it would need new hardware, radio and antenna configurations, and additional software. RIM products were reliable, never this rushed. There would be no time for proper “soak-testing”—engineering talk for working bugs out of software. Waving off protests, Conlee, RIM’s product enforcer, asked each engineer to explain what he or she needed to make the touch phone happen. The room of problem solvers reluctantly itemized the parts, software, and staff they would need, immediately. Conlee then turned to Perry Jarmuszewski, a soft-spoken radio engineer who had been with RIM for more than a decade. “Perry I guess you’re good to go. You haven’t said anything,” Conlee offered. Jarmuszewski, who preferred solving problems to making them, had deliberately held his tongue. Prodded by Conlee, he pushed back. “On a scale of 0 to 10, if 10 means no way, then this project is an 11,” he said. “It’s impossible. It’s something I would not be able to deliver.” Conlee shrugged and gave his marching orders: “Well, you guys are the heads of our engineering groups. You are paid accordingly. I expect you to get it done. Verizon wants an answer to the iPhone. We have to do it.”

Is there anything exceptional about this? I’m interested in how certain aspects of managerial culture (a basically suspicious view of the self-reporting of employees concerning workload & feasibility, a valorsation of ‘visionary’ leadership, a competitive pressure to accelerate production timelines) contribute to a reality of intensified work: ‘leadership’ in practice means stressing the fuck out of your staff, taking credit when they meet these demands and punishing them when they don’t. The problem is the competitive escalation that emerges from the fact that sometimes people do meet these demands. If that can be pointed to then it undercuts the potential objection of any other team when confronted with demands they believe to be straight-forwardly impossible.

This is how managers then talk of such a team, once they’ve been leading it for a while. From pg 149:

“This is a team that prides itself on pulling off miracles, pulling all-nighters, working hard, solving the most complex problems, getting things done on time, getting things done under the wire. This is a team with a can-do spirit,” he says.

A really important bit of history recounted in Losing the Signal, pg 139-140, a really excellent book about the history of Research In Motion:

In the summer of 2007, however, Lazaridis cracked open a phone that gave him pause. “They’ve put a Mac in this thing,” he marveled after peering inside one of the new iPhones. Ever since Apple’s phone went on sale in June, critics and consumers were effusive about the sleek phone’s playful touch screen, elegant graphics, and high-resolution images. Lazaridis saw much more. This was no ordinary smartphone. It was a small mobile Apple computer whose operating system used 700 megabytes of memory—more than twenty-two times the computing power of the BlackBerry. The iPhone had a full Safari browser that traveled everywhere on the Internet. With AT& T’s backing, he could see, Apple was changing the direction of the industry. Lazaridis shared the revelation with his handset engineers, who had been pushing to expand BlackBerry’s Internet reach for years. Before, Lazaridis had waved them off. Carriers wouldn’t allow RIM to include more than a simple browser because it would crash their networks. After his iPhone autopsy, however, he realized the smartphone race was in danger of shifting. If consumers and carriers continued to embrace the iPhone, BlackBerry would need more than its efficient e-mail and battery to lead the market. “If this thing catches on, we’re competing with a Mac, not a Nokia,” he said. The new battleground was mobile computing.

In their interesting history of the rise and fall of Research In Motion, Losing the Signal, Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff describe how close a patent troll came to taking down what was at the time becoming the dominant player in the nascent market for smart phones. A patent was salvaged from a failed company and later used to sue RIM and came close to getting them locked out of the U.S. market. From pg 122:

The skeletal company was part of a growing breed of patent trolls whose primary business was to sue businesses allegedly infringing on their rights. Lawyers represented trolls on the contingency they would share a portion of any court awards. It was a booming business. U.S. lawsuits filed by patent trolls rose sharply to 428 in 2007 and 2,750 just five years later, by which point they accounted for nearly 60 percent of all U.S. patent lawsuits, double the level of five years earlier. 

Stout started the hunt for licensing fees by writing letters to dozens of communications companies suggesting they were infringing on its technology. One of the last letters was sent in January 2000 to RIM. NTP received no replies from most of the targets, including RIM.

If we accept the argument that intellectual property laws are intended to preserve profitability in the face of the infinite reproducibility of ideas, patent trolling comes to look like a fascinating systematic pathology. The very system designed to ensure the profitability of ideas leads, under conditions of accelerated competitive individualism, to the destruction of that system from within: what’s designed to facilitate innovation -> application in fact comes to pervasively disrupt it.

On pg 124 there’s a good summary of recent history:

Patent fights snowballed in the Information Age. Computing and communication advances arrived with such velocity that U.S. patent applications increased fourfold in the decade ending in 2010.8 Leading the way was the mobile phone business, accounting for nearly 25 percent of total U.S. patents granted in 2013, up from 5 percent in 2001.9 Many breakthroughs were based on software concepts, opening a new front in the patent wars involving a labyrinth of algorithms and code. These feuds became high-stakes battlegrounds when U.S. courts began handing out rich awards for patent infringements.

On page 128 they describe the long term damage to the company:

Few people knew of the emotional toll the case took on RIM’s chiefs. Lazaridis looked for solace in his faith, and Balsillie in his new guru. The humiliating legal spectacle had unnerved the company’s leaders and diverted their attention from emerging competitors. “We lost some of who we were through that,” says Patrick Spence. “That’s ultimately the cost to the company. It’s not the $ 612 million. It’s what that cost us in terms of taking focus away from where we needed to go.”

The necessity of resisting patent trolls incentivises tactics which may skew corporate priorities. From pg 145-146:

What Balsillie prized most of all was Motorola’s vast arsenal of intellectual property rights. There were an estimated seventeen thousand issued mobile patents, most of them for dated cellphone technology that was more valuable in the legal arena, where RIM and its competitors faced a constant onslaught of patent lawsuits. RIM’s dealmaker was obsessed with intellectual property after the emotionally scarring NTP war. He lobbied governments on both sides of the border and spoke to business groups to push for reforms that might prevent the legal brinksmanship that nearly flattened RIM. Washington and Ottawa were receptive, but progress was slow. In this vacuum, tech companies strengthened their legal rights by acquiring patent collections from struggling rivals. With Motorola’s patent chest, RIM would hold a much stronger hand against patent trolls and competitors alike.

An interesting insight from Losing the Signal, a nicely written book about the rise and fall of Research In Motion. On pg 59, the authors describe how the company found little interest in constant connectivity on grounds of urgency, because phone calls would suffice for anything truly urgent. On the other hand, the prospect of continual connection was appealing on grounds of convenience, allowing people to utilise dead time in order to perpetually battle the flood of communication:

When Balsillie and his new product manager, David Castell, began testing consumer appetite for a mobile e-mail service on the Leapfrog device, they assumed traveling salespeople and other busy professionals would line up for a product that constantly relayed urgent e-mail updates. Instead, focus group research revealed there was no burning desire by participants to quickly read or reply to electronic messages. If they needed to reach colleagues urgently, a phone call would do. At a focus group in Sunnyvale, California, one participant grew antagonistic when showed a device announcing e-mails with a buzzing noise. “If this thing buzzes every time I get an e-mail, you’d better ship it with a hammer,” he warned. A more helpful insight came from a participant who spent much of his professional life on the road. He approached with dread his evening hotel ritual of downloading the day’s flood of e-mails on his laptop. It was a chore that inevitably involved hours of reading and replying. “If I just had a tool to help me with my volume of e-mail on the road, I’d pay anything,” he said. Convenience, not urgency, was a more potent marketing pitch.

The problem is of course that constant connectivity only increases the flood, as ever greater tracts of daily life become open to sending email. Furthermore, urgency is a moving target because the assumption of constant connectivity weakens commitment to prior scheduling and facilitates re-coordination right up until the point of meeting. This extract from pg 73 conveys the early days of this process in a corporate setting:

The constancy of BlackBerry e-mails gave new urgency to business communications. Bosses with BlackBerrys chastised lieutenants for slow responses to e-mails that many still took a day or two to read. They made sure that changed. Senior BlackBerry-using executives in turn ordered BlackBerrys for their direct reports so they could stay in touch constantly. The BlackBerry virus was starting to spread.

In a perverse way, constant connectivity creates the problem it is expected to solve. What really struck me is how the travelling salesman’s problem, a daily flood of emails accessed only once per day, now stands as one of the most often invoked solutions to the problem of email: only check your email once per day.

Perhaps constant connectivity can be seen in terms of trading spatial autonomy for temporal autonomy – the prospect of utilising idle time felt like autonomy but was actually something more like flexibility. From pg 60:

Idle time between meetings or lost time in taxis and airport lounges could be productively spent processing e-mails. Employers would be able to reach staff any time of the day and employees would not have to be tethered to computers. Bosses would never know e-mails were coming from baseball games, the golf course, or family homes.

An interesting snippet from Losing The Signal, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, concerning the lengths to which overzealous mangers would go during the early days of Research In Motion. From pg 39:

One RIM manager became so obsessed with deadlines he issued an edict requiring engineers to ask permission before leaving at night. Lazaridis reversed the decree, but his company’s aggressive, need-it-yesterday approach fostered what would become a robust cynicism. “It got to the point that when schedules were made up I didn’t bother to read them,” says Wandel. “They were so made up, a fantasy.”

While it’s nice this wasn’t enforced indefinitely, it’s nonetheless reflective of a peculiar culture of intensified work. The famous office perks of Google et al represent a domestication of this impulse: why would you want to go home when we’ve provided all these nice things for you? Add to that an element of self and social selection, such that only those willing to subordinate themselves in this way are likely to get there in the first place.

But what was once a peripheral phenomenon, confined to the run up to deadlines and struggling start ups, now defines the working culture of much of the tech industry. The managerial culture this breeds can be toxic, as illustrated by this notorious op-ed about the ‘wage-slave attitude’ in game production:

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways. I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done. Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on. These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.