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When BlackBerry really gave up on hardware, according to its ex-design chief

BlackBerry CEO John Chen shows off the Passport device at its 2014 launch in Toronto, a device that Jason Griffin says was a move in the right direction for the company.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For Jason Griffin, BlackBerry Ltd.'s decision this week to stop building smartphones came as little surprise.

Mr. Griffin, who worked for BlackBerry in a number of hardware design roles between 1996 and 2014, characterizes BlackBerry's long turnaround effort as "a lost opportunity."

The Waterloo, Ont.-based company announced Wednesday that it would no longer manufacture its eponymous device. Instead, the smartphones will be built only through joint ventures or licensing arrangements.

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When Mr. Griffin left the company two years ago, he was in charge of the design team. Before that, he was vice-president of Foresights, the BlackBerry team that developed concept devices and interfaces. He says it was obvious earlier this year that the company was abandoning hardware when it laid off key employees. But the signs were there even before that.

Everyone says Apple out-innovated BlackBerry, but what was the design culture like in Waterloo?

BlackBerry was a very good company for developing ideas [Mr. Griffin was a keyboard designer, among other roles, and is proud of such features as the trackball and SureType]. But it was always difficult to get it to market; BlackBerry was a conservative company.

The problem with big companies was they become obsessed with market data – that becomes their recipe for their product line. If you're just reflecting the market, you're not trying to change the market, and BlackBerry was guilty of that. With [former CEO Thorsten Heins], it was about chasing what screen size is right, what do most people buy? But focus groups are not going to tell you something you don't have; they aren't going to tell you something they can't imagine. If you overindex on customer feedback, you'll never get anywhere new.

That's a bad mindset to be in. When the downturn was going on I became quite excited, because, hey, we've been innovating for quite some time; the company has a lot of concepts; this is when we could try something different.

What was an example of the kind of product that wasn't your typical BlackBerry?

Passport [released in 2014] was a step in the right direction for BlackBerry. I was a big champion of Passport – I designed many aspects of it. It snuck through everybody in upper-level management: Thorsten was preoccupied, initially John Chen [who replaced Heins as CEO in 2013] didn't like Passport at all. It was weird. I think if it had been developed a little bit earlier or a little bit later it would have been killed: it was fully developed, but not completed when Chen arrived. A bunch of the other phones – they were your normal BB phones – Chen cancelled. He launched it anyway because if it failed, it wasn't his thing. He then got some feedback on it, and he ended up liking it.

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When did things start going in the wrong direction?

The Passport never really had a chance for being a BB10 phone [the app-gap was an insurmountable barrier]. It was still a step in the right direction. The trick would be to iterate on it. But the first thing we did, we went to the Classic [released in 2015], which destroyed the brand. As soon as you do that you say we're looking to the past and it's over. The PRIV … it was clear it was never going to be a success.

He would always say that he was going to give hardware a chance, but it wasn't about making the hardware business work. He wanted to stabilize the big enterprise customers: if you cut hardware right away you would have lost a ton of customers. It's not an attack on the strategy, it's just a result of the strategy.

We did some awesome stuff at BlackBerry that never made it; didn't matter how cool it was. I could tell this right before I left, we were pitching pretty cool concepts, but there was zero interest in even understanding them. It was just not part of the strategy. That stuff was just sitting in a drawer. BlackBerry owns the IP on that and it's gonna die because nobody knows about it.

Looking back, how do you feel about it?

I love BlackBerry, they made me wealthy, all those experiences I'm grateful for and now I'm taking that and taking advantage of that [his new design company, Snap Pea Designs Inc. is working on smartphone concepts and tablet keyboard ideas].

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What if you had a Steve Jobs to come back to BlackBerry? They were probably in worse shape than BlackBerry. When Thorsten left, there was still lots of money, but they were burning through money. BlackBerry was still sitting on a recurring income, and money in the bank and had talent that's very unique. The ingredients were there, and the reality is they're not there any more. So, I see that as a lost opportunity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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