NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When Apple ( AAPL) introduced the iPhone to the world in January 2007, Research In Motion ( RIMM) dismissed the device as a competitive threat, or so we would learn later.

Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis stated internally, according to reports, that no one would want the equivalent of a personal computer on a phone. People just wanted an email messaging device, he asserted -- a worldview shaped by the company he'd built.

But the death knell for RIM probably came earlier, on Oct. 5, 2006. That was the day the other RIM co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, bid $185 million to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That bid began a childish, multiyear quest by Balsillie to buy a hockey team, which diverted his focus from the core RIM business. RIM's competitive position today is arguably unfixable because of Balsillie's quixotic quest.

Balsillie's bid for the Penguins ran from October to December 2006, when he finally withdrew his bid in frustration. But five months later, he announced he was going to buy the Nashville Predators instead.

Again, however, the bid was not to be. After the league fought it and the owner got cold feet, the deal was canceled a year later.

But Balsillie wouldn't let go of his dream. With a net worth much greater then than it is now, he made a $212.5 million offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes in May 2009. This deal also got derailed several months later.

Did a hockey fantasy kill RIM? Wasn't Jim Balsillie working on his own time to spend his own money, which he has a right to do?

Well, you can call it a coincidence, but here are the numbers:
  • Since Balsillie's Oct. 5, 2006 bid for the Penguins, RIM's shares are down 16%.
  • Over that same period, the Nasdaq is up 24%, and Apple -- riding the incredible success of its iPhone, which it turns out people did want -- has risen 358%.

Maybe this would have happened anyway. Maybe Apple was just too strong and RIM's directors should shrug their shoulders and say, "Hey, it wasn't our fault because this is just a competitive business."

On planet Earth, however, we know that Balsillie was obviously distracted by his hockey forays. In hindsight, it's obvious that the period from October 2006 to June 2009 was when RIM wasn't paying attention to Apple.

Maybe if Jim Balsillie had had his nose to the grindstone at work, RIM could have reacted faster to Apple's competitive threat. Maybe it could have come up with a strategy for mainland China, which still eludes the company today.

Most people agree that RIM didn't really get serious (or desperate) about competing with the iPhone until it bought QNX in April 2010. This is the next-generation operating system for RIM's devices that likely won't hit the market until late 2012.

RIM bought QNX several months after Balsillie finally stopped messing around with hockey and turned his full attention back to the company that gave him the money he had used to try to buy a team.

The final chapter has yet to be written for RIM. Maybe QNX will save it. But it'll have a lot less market share next year when it finally shows up to the party. By then, it may be way too late.

If RIM does blow up, Balsillie will still have plenty of cash that he's pulled out of the company over the years through stock and stock options -- at least enough to keep buying tickets to hockey games.

That will be ice-cold comfort to laid-off RIM employees, however.

At the time of publication, Jackson had a bullish position in Apple.

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Eric Jackson is founder and Managing Member of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd. In January 2007, Jackson started the world's first Internet-based campaign to increase shareholder value at Yahoo!, leading to a change in CEOs in 2007. He also spoke out in favor of Yahoo!'s accepting Microsoft's buyout offer in 2008. Global Proxy Watch named Jackson as one of its 10 "Stars" who positively influenced international corporate governance and shareowner value in 2007.

Prior to founding Ironfire Capital, Jackson was President and CEO of Jackson Leadership Systems, Inc., a leadership, strategy, and governance consulting firm. He completed his Ph.D. in the Management Department at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, with a specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Governance, and holds a B.A. from McGill University.

He was previously Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at VoiceGenie Technologies, a software firm now owned by Alcatel-Lucent. In 2004, Jackson founded the Young Patrons' Circle at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which is now the second-largest social and philanthropic group of its kind in North America, raising $500,000 annually for the museum. You can follow Jackson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ericjackson or @ericjackson.

You can contact Eric by emailing him at eric.jackson@thestreet.com.

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