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From the cutting-room floor: Canada Day revelers get quantum surprise

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

In every book draft there are sections and passages that never make it into the final product. For BlackBerry Town, plenty of material ended up on the cutting room floor. My initial manuscript was written as a memoir of covering BlackBerry for the Waterloo Region Record newspaper. When Lorimer, my publisher, came on board they urged me to abandon the memoir format and write the book in the third-person. Some of the best material that ended up in the dustbin involved quantum computing. In this blog post I will share a few anecdotes about quantum. They are relevant because BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis is a big advocate of quantum theory and believes it will revolutionize the computer industry. It also caused me to wonder whether his fascination with quantum was a distraction, when he should have been focusing on the BlackBerry smartphone.

Oh Canada Oh Quantum

Sometime around 2006 or 2007 — I’m not sure of the year but it was early in my tenure as a business reporter at the Record — my wife and I went to the annual Canada Day celebrations on July 1 at the University of Waterloo. Held in a large open field off Columbia Street at the north end of the campus, the event stretches from afternoon into evening, and features the usual assortment of activities one would expect on a national holiday—games and rides for kids, food booths, a beer garden and concerts by a variety of local pop bands from a large portable stage. The climax of the event is always a lengthy and loud fireworks show at the end of the evening. As darkness descended and the crowd eagerly awaited the pyrotechnics, the emcee urged everyone to give a warm welcome to UW’s chancellor Mike Lazaridis. He had been appointed to the largely ceremonial post in 2003 and would continue to hold that title until 2009. As he strode onstage, a group of students leapt to their feet and rushed forward for a better look at the wireless pioneer and physics innovator. By this time he was a huge celebrity, and his public appearances were rare around town. Many at the event were eager for a closer look at this local hero, including myself who was new to the business beat.

After wishing everyone a Happy Canada Day, Lazaridis turned to the business at hand. “I have two words for you,” he announced, pausing dramatically in mid-sentence. A hush fell over the crowd, which numbered several thousand at this point in the evening. Only a few expectant whispers could be heard; everyone leaned closer. “Quantum Computing," Lazaridis intoned dramatically. The crowd stood in silence awaiting some kind of follow-up, but the RIM boss merely smiled as he scanned the sea of faces. Then he strode abruptly from the stage without another word. Shortly thereafter, as if right on cue, the darkened sky exploded in a colourful array of fireworks. Later I couldn’t help but think of the popular 1967 movie, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman in the titular role. At a welcome-home party thrown by his parents, Hoffman is button-holed by a middle-aged man with some career advice for the young graduate. After a prolonged and suspenseful build-up the sage finally drops his wisdom in one word: “Plastics!” he shares with utmost gravity. Hoffman’s dead-pan puzzlement at this anti-climax is a classic moment in film comedy.

Quantum Computing: Solace or Uncertainty?

In the summer of 2008, Mike Hammond, a young business reporter at the Record, was gearing up for the paper’s annual interview with Lazaridis. Every autumn since the mid-1990s, the Record had published an annual supplement called Technology Spotlight featuring articles and pictures on the hottest high-tech companies in town. As the hottest and most important tech firm in town, it would have been unthinkable not to have a story about RIM in the supplement, and Lazaridis was happy to make himself available for an interview. Indeed, he viewed it as his annual state-of-the-company address for local readers and RIM employees, many of whom lived in the area and read the Record.

A tall, slim Sarnia native, Hammond had joined the paper only a year before and immediately been thrust into the RIM beat. His predecessor, Matt Walcoff had been blacklisted by the company after his aggressive reporting had angered co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Hammond’s seven-year stint covering business in the Ottawa area, including large tech companies such as Nortel Networks, had earned him the nod to cover the RIM beat. Even so, he went into the Lazaridis session with mixed feelings. The year before he had interviewed the RIM chieftain for Technology Spotlight and come away disappointed. His questions about the just-released iPhone had been batted away by Lazaridis with boilerplate answers about the growing popularity of the BlackBerry and no mention of Apple’s groundbreaking device. This time Hammond planned a different approach. From his vantage point in Ottawa, it had always puzzled him why tech analysts had for years been predicting RIM’s downfall at the hands of some up-and-coming new device or gadget. RIM never seemed to get the credit it deserved. But when the RIM boss side-stepped the question and began talking about the way the company had created “this market from scratch,” Hammond could feel his heart sink again. This was not the inspiring, news-breaking answer he had been hoping for. As the interview continued in ho-hum fashion, he threw in a question about quantum computing. It was not the focus of the article, but he had heard about Lazaridis’s fascination with this new branch of digital and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. The BlackBerry boss lit up.

Harnessing tiny particles known as quanta and their ability to be in two places at once, quantum computers had the potential to leave even the fastest of standard computers in the distance, Lazaridis explained. Think of a locksmith trying to open a lock with dozens of keys. With a regular computer he would use one key at a time. With a quantum computer, he would use all the keys at once. As Lazaridis went on in this vein, Hammond’s fascination grew. “It blew my mind,” he recalled years later. Even though the first commercial quantum computers were still decades away, “I came away from that meeting thinking that RIM was going to be the first company with a quantum-powered smartphone.” Hammond was so pumped after the interview that he went back to the newsroom and poured Lazaridis’s remarks into a blog he had started on the Record’s website. Sadly, Hammond never got to see Lazaridis pursue his quantum dreams nor follow the fate of the BlackBerry. He was laid off during the economic downturn of 2009, and returned to Ottawa where he now works as a writer and editor for the Canadian Heritage department of the federal government. In his spare time he writes short stories and hosts an internet radio show on Blockchain technology.

Lazaridis, come forth! Or at least answer my email

In the summer of 2017, I opened the Record to find a full-page ad for a conference at the University of Waterloo in September called the Waterloo Innovation Summit. Among the featured speakers was Mike Lazaridis, who would be talking about quantum computing. I resolved to get into this conference to hear his speech. I had already done plenty of research on quantum computing for my book, reading articles online and in newspaper archives and composing what I thought was a reasonable description of quantum computing. But I had never heard the RIM boss speak on the topic. When I called up conference organizers to inquire about attending, I was shocked to learn it would cost $1,000 for the three-day event. It featured a heavyweight lineup of speakers addressing the daunting topic, Hacking The Future. Hacking in this case meant disrupting or altering the future. Would it be possible to hear only Lazaridis’s speech, I inquired, explaining that I was a semi-retired journalist working on a book about BlackBerry and quantum computing? “I’ll check into it and get back to you,” the organizer told me. A day later she called back with an interesting offer. They needed someone to cover the conference and write a few articles for the university website. Would I be interested in covering Lazaridis’s speech and another one just before by Jared Cohen, a cyber-security expert from Google? I could hardly believe my ears. Instead of paying $1,000 to get into the conference, I would now be paid $750, the fee they were offering, to write two stories about it. Without any hesitation, I accepted the offer.

I had another reason for wanting to hear Lazaridis’s speech. I had sent him an email about a year before requesting an interview for my book. Marshaling every argument I could think of for why it would be in his best interests to talk to me, I had spent quite a bit of time on the wording of the email. But I had received no response. Covering his speech would give me another chance to request an interview, this time face-to-face after his presentation. It was one of the oldest moves in a journalist’s bag of tricks.

On the appointed day I took a seat in the section reserved for the media in the cozy Humanities Theatre, where the conference was being held. I switched on my digital recorder and took notes as first Cohen and then Lazaridis delivered their speeches. Much of the RIM executive’s speech ended up in the final version of BlackBerry Town, including his fireside chat with conference host and broadcaster Amanda Lang as the pair sat in easy chairs on the stage. It was crucial material as Lazaridis painted a full picture of the origins of quantum computing and his efforts to transform Waterloo Region into a hub for quantum research and entrepreneurship.

As he neared the end of his talk, I began to get nervous at the prospect of confronting him after his presentation. I had already cased out the Humanities Theatre upon arrival, noting that there were just two exits, the loading dock at the back and a foyer at the front door. I didn’t want to take any chances on missing my target. Lazaridis didn’t often grant interviews, and might just try to slip out the back to avoid any nosy media. Once his chat was over with Lang, I waited a few minutes then headed to the loading dock at the back of the theatre. No sign of Lazaridis or any of his entourage. I hurried around to the front foyer and found him standing with his back turned to me, surrounded by a knot of friends and conference delegates.

Heart pounding, I approached and waited for a break in the conversation. “Excuse me Mike,” I said loudly at the next pause. As he turned, I held out my hand, introduced myself and said nervously, my face flushing a deep red, that I was covering his speech for the UW website. He smiled, shook my hand and looked down at my media badge then back up to my face. The group of onlookers surrounding us leaned in. I explained that I had also been working on a book about BlackBerry and had sent him an email about a year ago requesting an interview. “The book’s almost done,” I said, “but it’s not too late for that interview.” As I spoke I could see a dark cloud sweep across his face, wiping out the smile. “That chapter is closed,” he said firmly, fixing me with a steely glare. With that he turned and walked away, followed by his entourage. There would be no interview about his days at Research In Motion for BlackBerry Town, but as a consolation I did get plenty of good material on quantum computing for the book—and $750 to boot.

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