Stratagem 27:Borrow a Corpse for the Soul’s Return
“The powerful is beyond exploitation, but the weak needs help. Exploit and manipulate the weak for they need you more than you need them.”
—From The Thirty-Six Stratagems
By the mid-1990s, pagers were dying. Once the mobile communications tool of choice among doctors and business executives and later embraced by the general public, pagers were losing their place on the hips of movie stars and drug dealers. As the cost and reach of voice networks improved, mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) with mobile phone capabilities were taking over. Why would anyone want a text message when they could have a real conversation?
The industry tide’s shift toward adding more—combining Internet connectivity with voice and video and music—created an ideal opportunity for the innovative thinker willing to choose another path. It set the stage for a small, unknown Canadian company to steal the show once dominated by consumer electronic giants.
The steady decline of pagers forced BellSouth, at the time one of the leading pager service providers, to face up to a challenge. The company had invested millions in building a network of antennas, Mobitex, which passed text messages between pagers. BellSouth wanted to use its network investment. But to remain competitive, the company needed to expand its newer voice network and thereby push the older Mobitex infrastructure into obsolescence. BellSouth faced the classic “innovator’s dilemma.” It needed to destroy its old business to evolve.
Or did it?
A small wireless modem company convinced BellSouth it had a way out. The company, Research in Motion (RIM), had been founded about ten years previously by a twenty-three-year-old university dropout. He and two friends had built a business designing technology that enabled users to sell wireless data through a data network. Ericsson and a few other large companies were using RIM technology.
When BellSouth was looking for ideas for reviving their Mobitex infrastructure, RIM proposed developing a two-way pager. This idea cut across the mobile industry’s dominant momentum. Mobile phone companies and hardware producers were abandoning old text networks and replacing them with more powerful voice networks. Their vision was to build devices that could deliver everything a user would need—voice e-mail, Web pages, and videos—over one network.
RIM proposed moving in precisely the opposite direction. It convinced BellSouth to expand its Mobitex data network and launch a RIM-designed two-way pager.
The RIM device, eventually called the BlackBerry, was simple. It offered no voice service (it was not a phone) and no graphics (it only displayed text e-mails). Even the device’s design ignored the aesthetics, which Motorola, Nokia, Palm Computing’s Palm Pilot, and Compaq’s iPac deemed essential to succeed in the market place.
The BlackBerry’s utilitarian square black box with a screen and a small keyboard inspired no envy among the design-conscious. But it worked. Because RIM used an abandoned data network with excess capacity, e-mails sent from a RIM device transferred unhindered by the congestion common to newer voice networks. BlackBerry e-mails were fast and reliable.
The company introduced two other key technological innovations. It “pushed” e-mail onto its devices, while competing products required users to prompt e-mails to be downloaded. It also solved the “two e-mail” problem. At the time, people with mobile e-mail devices needed to maintain two e-mail accounts, one for the office and the other for the mobile device. RIM developed technology that enabled users to maintain one account linked to both their computer and their BlackBerry.
These innovations differentiated RIM’s two-way pager, but they did not provide a sustainable advantage. With some technical investment, competitors could, and would eventually, duplicate push-e-mail and the one-e-mail-account ability. But RIM’s strategic decision to build its business around out-of-date data networks was one that its competitors, all heavily invested in building devices that leveraged more modern voice networks, would resist copying.RIM, deemed out of place and pace, suffered the dismissive treatment most great companies experience in their early days. RIM’s results quickly provoked second thoughts among industry experts.
Palm Computing had revolutionized the PDA with its Palm Pilot, at the time the most popular PDA in the world. Compaq was investing heavily in catching up with its iPac PDA. Mobile phone manufacturers were packing their phones with new features. Collectively the mobile phone giants were investing billions in creating a consumer’s all-in-one digital device.
RIM’s unorthodox, simplified offering quickly won over corporate executives. Its name became synonymous with fast, reliable e-mail. Crackberry, a word that acknowledges the addictive nature of the BlackBerry, entered the English lexicon. RIM leveraged its strength among corporate users to expand into adjacent segments. It later added voice capabilities and Internet capabilities as it steadily ate away at the market share of well-funded competitors. In 2005, ten years after introducing its first two-way pager, RIM’s BlackBerry displaced the Palm Pilot as the most popular hand-held computer.74
The Shepherd Corpse
After the uncle-nephew team of Xiang Liang and Xiang Yu took control of the state of Wu (see Stratagem Twenty-Three, Exchange the role of guest for that of host), they continued their rebellion against the Qin Empire. Their first goal was to reclaim their home state, Chu, whose king had been humiliated and murdered by the Qin.
After they reconquered Chu, and before Xiang Liang was killed during a mission to expand the revolution, Xiang Liang vied for the Chu throne. The former king and his family were dead, so no clear heir existed. Xiang Liang, who came from a long line of respected Chu generals, had as much right to the throne as anyone. Unfortunately for Xiang Liang, a rival warlord claimed he had found a descendant of a noble clan who could be linked, albeit through distant relationships, to the former king. The warlord argued that this person should take the throne.
Xiang Liang consulted a wise man to devise a strategy to maintain control of Chu. This wise man told Xiang Liang to find a direct descendent of the former Chu king. Although he would not directly rule Chu, he could exert influence over the new king. This would also invoke the spirit of dead Chu king, ignite patriotism, and win Xian Liang broad support from the Chu people for having discovered a true heir of their beloved former king.
So Xiang Liang launched an exhaustive search. Time and persistence uncovered a direct grandson of the former Chu king—a poor shepherd. The shepherd agreed to become king and adopted his grandfather’s name.
The shepherd’s coronation marked a pivotal moment for Xiang Liang and the Chu state. It set a fire under the Chu rebellion against the Qin Empire and helped Xiang Liang and his nephew, Xiang Yu, become leading figures of that rebellion. Had Xiang Liang not found a true descendant to the Chu throne, it is not clear that Chu’s patriotic drive would have exploded with sufficient force to put Chu and therefore Xiang Liang at the forefront of rebellion that ended the Qin Empire.
Reviving the history of the Chu king was like borrowing a corpse and using it to awaken Chu’s citizens. RIM and Xiang Liang each revived the past to chart a new future.