RIM chief chose wireless over the stars

Canadian technology pioneer Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), always dreamt of putting something in space, such as a space probe or part of a spacecraft.

Lazaridis may not have got his creations into space but he truly did go boldly where no one had gone before. In the late 1980s he passed up the opportunity to build an access card for the Canadarm 2, to aid in the construction of the International Space Station, which at the time was still just a concept. Although it was a difficult decision, he instead opted to pursue his fascination for wireless communications. He studied the Mobitex network — one of the first wireless data networks — a decision that eventually led to the development of RIM’s lines of personal digital assistants (PDAs), smartphones and the BlackBerry.

“It was a very difficult decision for Doug [Fregin] (a RIM co-founder) and me, because on the one hand you don’t pass up an opportunity to build part of a spacecraft — especially when you’re an engineer,” Lazaridis explained. “On the other hand, we had no idea how long it was going to be before any of this happened and it’s not like it’s really a volume business. I mean, how many spaceships are going to launch?”

Additionally, Lazaridis and Fregin remembered a moment in high school when they were working in the electronic shop with wireless transceivers and computers. “I remembered a conversation with my electronic shop teacher where he said, ‘you know Mike, some day someone is going to combine computers and wireless together and it’s going to become something really big,’” Lazaridis said.

Now, 20 years since RIM’s inception, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company, has worldwide prestige and a plethora of high-profile users. Additionally, the company is consistently ranked by Deloitte as one of the top 50 most successful IT firms in Canada.

One avid user of the BlackBerry is Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush.

Shortly after planes were allowed back in the air after 9/11, Bush was flying en route to a major city centre when the pilot informed him that communications had gone down.

“The pilots were not only concerned, but certain that their destination airport had launched F-16s to shoot them down,” Lazaridis said. “So Jeb took his BlackBerry and sent a message to his assistant to contact the airport to tell them who they are and that they had lost their communications system. The BlackBerry saved his life.”

But when Lazaridis’ love affair with technology began he did not know his inventions would save the lives of important politicians. When Lazaridis was a four-year-old child living in Germany he was fascinated with an electronic train set given to him by some family friends. Born in Istanbul to Greek parents, he lived in Germany from age four until six before his family emigrated to Canada, settling in Windsor, Ont.

Young Lazaridis loved the train set but his fun was cut short when the family’s landlord complained the toy was just too noisy. In an effort to solve the problem, Lazaridis’ father showed him how to touch the wires and batteries to the track in order to light up the lights in the train cars.

“I thought that it was most amazing thing. It just looked like magic to me,” he said.

From there, Lazaridis progressed to building things out of Lego such as a cuckoo clock and a phonograph that ruined all his parents’ records, eventually ending up as a young adult at the University of Waterloo where he majored in electrical engineering with computer science option.

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