BlackBerry racing to win

ORLANDO — I started following Formula 1 racing decades ago, back in the days when it was largely an elite, clubby European sport. Advertising on a car was frowned on.

These days F1 cars are 300 kph international advertising machines that run on courses around the world. So it's no wonder that BlackBerry decided to put some money into one of the teams. It's following the lead of Intel, AMD, Vodafone, SAP, Siemens, AT&T, Symantec and other tech companies with global reach.

(Heins, right, with Hamilton. ITWC photo)

The thing is, car racing isn't like tech. While parts of these supercars are incredibly durable, things happen. Unlike, say, carrier-grade servers that run for months without booting, bad luck, clumsy tire changers or a bad driver beside you can affect your finish in a race.

So I had mixed feelings when Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton appeared on stage Tuesday with BlackBerry sponsor and CEO Thorsten Heins. There's danger if you try to equate racing with tech. Hamilton's a former F1 champion and considered among the top three or four drivers on the circuit, but this year he's sitting fourth in the standings so far with a car that's fast but not fast enough because it's hard on its tires.

Suprisingly, Hamilton — perhaps a bit defensive after a few races in which he'd hoped to be doing better — quicky deflected Heins' compliments and mentioned how “incredible” it is that “the black things on the car” — the tires — can cause so much trouble.

You know, the non-mechanical bits.

Understandably, Heins tries to use racing as a metaphor for the progress BlackBerry has made in the past year as it tries to overcome Android and Apple devices that have rushed past it in sales.  

 “We're on the starting grid,” he told reporters. “I wouldn't say yet we have pole (first) position, but we're certainly on the starting grid– not way at the back, either, but we're in the race.”

Pointing to his executive team, many of whom he recruited in the past 12 months, Heins said he has a squad that “will do everything we can to see the chequered flag first.”

I wince at this. As I hack, I can draw colourful metaphors. It gets dicey when CEOs do it because the might get burned . Okay, BlackBerry is racing against Samsung and Apple. And modern racing cars, as I said earlier, have some components that are amazingly durable. Hamilton, though he didn't intend it, pointed out how delicate they can be. Which perhaps isn't something a tech company (one whose network has had a few failures) wants to be close to.

Tim Shepherd, an industry analyst based with Canalys in Britain, made a similar point in an interview here. Heins, he noted, is proud of the fact that in “just” two years BlackBerry was able to conceive and bring to market BB10.

The IT industry moves fast, Shepherd said. BlackBerry doesn't have two years to innovate.

(By the way, Pirelli, F1's tire supplier, has had enough of fielding complaints this year from Hamilton and other drivers about its shredding tires and this week announced they'll be a little more durable next race).

(For those of you who have to suffer with PCs that often need rebooting, buggy software, poor cellular coverage and routers that fail, I will accept arguments that racing cars are exactly as fragile as IT can be).

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