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All hail the Blackberry

This powerful e-mail device has had a phenomenal influence on how people function. Arguably, it has changed our working lives.

November 1, 2007  

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In its various forms, the BlackBerry, from Waterloo, Ontario’s Research In Motion Ltd., has become an international success and, in the technology world at least, a Canadian icon on par with Mounties and Moose.

This small but powerful e-mail device has had a phenomenal influence on how people function. Arguably, it has changed our working lives as significantly as did the personal computer. It is not without reason that devotees and scoffers alike refer to it as the “Crack Berry”.

As an example, I remember sitting in the audience a few years ago at a conference hosted by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

The keynote speaker, the federal Industry Minister of the day, told the crowd that the BlackBerry had become an essential tool during Cabinet meetings. If the ministers needed information, he said, they could instantly request it from their assistants or deputies.

I was impressed that members of Cabinet permitted themselves to be reached in this way during their most confidential meetings, at which government ministers make the highest decisions in the land.

I was equally astonished that nobody else in the room seemed to think this was a significant evolution in the way in which government works.

I view it as an indicator of how critical the BlackBerry has become that this tool was being allowed into Cabinet. (I don’t know, but I suspect that tape recorders and cameras — much older technologies — are forbidden except under extraordinary and carefully controlled circumstances.)

So, the BlackBerry has become a vital tool of business and government, and in the process has become a huge Canadian success story. It has certainly made a pile of money for the founders of Research in Motion.

It would be tempting to do something foolish with the pile. I’m sorry to admit it, but I tend to agree with another Canadian success story, Brent Butt of Corner Gas, who once said of Bill Gates’ wealth, “If I had that much money, I’d be riding down Main Street on a giraffe, wearing a Viking hat, swinging a sack of gophers over my head… Who could stop me?”

At times, the temptation must be overwhelming to blow the entire pile on frivolities. Fortunately for all of us, RIM co-founder Jim Balsillie has decided to put his fortune to better use.

Earlier this year, Balsillie donated $50 million to the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.

This money, described as the largest-ever gift to the social sciences in Canada, is being used to seed a $100-million project, the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.

The new school will bring together professors, researchers and students in the fields of political science, economics, history, geography, global studies, environmental studies and business.

The plan is to create a world-class centre of excellence in global governance and international affairs, one that will foster a better understanding of other nations and help ensure that Canadians play an important role in global affairs in the future.

In making the donation, Balsillie noted that “the issues of today are borderless. It’s a different world, an accelerated world, one that is adopting change across the globe collectively, aggressively and irrevocably.”

To that I would add, “And the BlackBerry is one of the technologies that is helping to create that different, accelerated world by giving our political, academic and business leaders even faster access to the information they need to make sound decisions.”

Having developed one tool that has helped to change the world, Balsillie has now funded another tool to help us understand the changes and one that has nothing to do with wireless, or telecom, or even technology, but with intellect and imagination.

I can think of no better way to end this year of columns than to say, “Good on ya: Thanks, Jim!”

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or