Buried at the bottom of a press release announcing BlackBerry's solid fourth quarter earnings was the real headlining news: Mike Lazaridis, the founder and former CEO of BlackBerry (nee Research In Motion), is leaving the company for good. He had been on his way to the door for some time, stepping down as co-CEO in 2012. Effective May 1, Lazaridis will resign as vice chairman of the board (but will retain his shares in the company).
But it's still surprising to see a founder entirely part from his baby, which he built into the premier handset maker in the mid-2000s through obsessive followers. That is, until the iPhone fans arrived soon after the Apple phone's release in 2007.
BlackBerry suffered several dismal quarters with Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie at the helm, failing to remain the No. 1 and then No. 2 smartphone maker to Apple and Android after the height of the "CrackBerry" craze. The corporate suffering was felt nowhere more sharply than in Waterloo, Ontario, BlackBerry's hometown. In January, HuffPost Canada's Sunny Freeman described how BlackBerry employees, reading the writing on the wall, have decided to move on from the town's largest employer to found or to join startups in the tech scene there.
And Lazaridis, too, like other Waterloo techies, is moving on. He and his RIM co-founder Doug Fregin are starting an investment firm called Quantum Valley Investments. The Globe and Mail, in a recent profile of the firm before Lazaridis' departure from BlackBerry, called it "an initiative that pools some of the two wealthy men’s money behind a vision to make Waterloo the centre of entirely new industries focused on the immense but largely untapped power of quantum computing." That could mean, according to Lazaridis, "tricorder"-like scanners that could find someone's genetic makeup.
The idea is that such "Star Trek"-esque tech could lift Waterloo's tech sector just as RIM did in the 2000s. And it could use it: three-fifths of all BlackBerry layoffs occurred in the Waterloo area. Quantum computers are posed to more fundamentally alter computing than the smartphone revolution has, changing the way computers run right down to the ones and zeros. "Though tiny and computationally puny when compared with conventional chips, these quantum computers show that it is possible to represent and process information at scales far beyond what can be done in a semiconductor circuit," MIT professor Seth Lloyd said in a recent Slate article. Compared to quantum computers, today's machines will seems like abacuses.
Despite higher-than-expected sales for its flagship Z10, BlackBerry's prospects for a turnaround are uncertain. But if quantum computers are indeed feasible and if Lazaridis succeeds in turning Waterloo into a quantum computing center -- he estimates the first fully functional quantum computer is 10 years away -- BlackBerry might become just a footnote in the town's history.