The Incompetence That Will Kill Apple

About 10 years ago, after landing at the airport in Toronto, I was taken aside for questioning at the immigration counter.

“We see that you keep coming in and out of the country for a few days. What are you doing in Canada?”

“Well, I’m advising a friend on what to do with his business.”

“Umm, okay… So, who is this ‘friend,’ and what is his ‘business?’”

“His name is Mike Lazaridis, and he runs a company called Research In Motion.”

A few seconds pass, and another immigration officer walks over. The officer questioning me leans back in his chair to talk to his colleague while they both stare at me.

“This guy says he’s here to advise a friend at some company called Research In Motion…”

“Can you tell us what, uh, ‘Research In Motion,’ does, exactly?”

I stared back at the officers and smiled, pausing for a second.

“Okay, wait, hold on. You don’t know what Research In Motion is? It’s literally, like, the most important company in Canada.”

I knew this wasn’t the answer the officers wanted from a stupid-looking guy in his early 20s; it was an obnoxious, “do you know who I am, I’m kind of a big deal” type of statement. But, at the same time, it was true — Research In Motion, the creator of the BlackBerry, was the most important company in Canada. Mike Lazaridis, its brilliant founder and CEO, was the most important tech executive in the country, and one of the most important in the world — the secret Wayne Gretzky of tech. And yet, as became obvious through countless incidents such as this, very few people knew or appreciated these facts.

Not that it mattered, of course. The immigration officers didn’t need to know or care about Research In Motion, BlackBerry, or Mike Lazaridis. Within a few years, these names would only be relevant to business students studying fallen empires.

At the end of the 2000s, I spent some time — including a month in Taiwan — advising Dan Kaminsky on a project to create a standard for secure hardware. Dan had figured out, long before almost anyone, that there were significant hardware issues that prevented most cloud-based virtual infrastructure from being used in a truly secure manner. As a result, there seemed to be a market need for a specification and certification scheme for truly secure cloud-based infrastructure. This project — “The Kaminsky Certification,” as I called it — was Dan’s move to distance himself from the cybersecurity “scene” that was suffocating him with fame and pressure after his epic hack of the Internet’s DNS system. Very few of the people who ran the Taiwanese OEMs knew or cared who Dan Kaminsky was, making it the perfect place for him to hide; here was an opportunity to spend a few years building a billion-dollar business while retreating into the role of an absolute nobody.

Unfortunately, because Dan Kaminsky wasn’t a nobody, a constant deluge of “friends” from the “hacker community” inundated Dan and relentlessly reminded him of his “position” and “responsibilities.” Many of these “friends” leaned heavily on their association with Dan to advance their businesses and careers; they were nothappy about losing him to some lousy project in Taiwan. I watched as all of the hard work I’d done to help Dan live a healthier, more balanced life was erased by the very intense efforts of a self-interested few to have Dan do what was best for them — regardless of what it meant for Dan’s well-being. As Dan began to question the motives of everyone around him, particularly mine, I knew I couldn’t win. I decided I’d rather walk away than fight against a large group of people with a massive amount of incentive to turn Dan against me. It was up to him to figure out what was real, and what wasn’t.

Around this time, my research into secure hardware, social computing and mobile devices led me to a fascinating discovery: there was a company that had quietly built a massive business wrapping these three things into one tightly integrated package: Research In Motion.

After doing a deep dive into the BlackBerry Messenger application that came preinstalled on every BlackBerry device sold by RIM, I wrote a short paper outlining my conclusions. I asserted that BBM was, unbeknownst to anyone, the fastest growing social network in the world; more interesting, it was also the fastest growing mobile social network in the world. After a night of writing, I posted my paper online. I spent a bit of time figuring out the email address for RIM’s CEO and sent him a short note with a link to the paper. And then I went to bed.

A shiny Aston Martin pulled up in front of me as I stood on a sidewalk, half-jetlagged, in Waterloo, Canada. I opened the passenger door, got in, and shook hands with the oversized driver.

“Hi Numair, Mike Lazaridis. Welcome to Canada.”

It had been a few days since I had written my paper analyzing BlackBerry and BBM. The day after I had sent Mike (RIM’s founder and CEO) an email, he’d sent me a reply, which led to a phone call, which had led to this meeting. And after this meeting came many months of work on a secret strategy to use BBM to destroy the most dangerous company in the world: Facebook.

As an advisor to Facebook in its earliest days, I was able to convince some of the most important members of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, such as Dave Morin, who led the creation of Facebook Platform, and Aaron Sittig, who literally designed Facebook (the colors, the layout, everything), to consider working on a project to destroy the monster they had inadvertently created. BBM would have been spun out into its own multi-platform mega-app, with an immediate lead over new entrants such as the terribly named “WhatsApp.” In the new, mobile-messaging-centric era of the near-future, Zuckerberg’s web-based empire would slowly disappear into obsolescence.

As we all know, this didn’t happen. Aaron went back to work at Facebook. Dave and I stopped talking. Facebook ruined the world. RIM died.

The lesson I learned at RIM was the same I learned from my time with Dan Kaminsky: at the end of the day, your fate is determined by the people around whom you surround yourself. In both cases, I saw the same thing: lots of incompetent, insecure, pathetic, parasitic people latching onto a “brand name” in an attempt to fill an empty inner void — and ultimately killing the host in the process.

Before I first visited Mike Lazaridis, he had passed my paper along to his executive team for comments. He shared their feedback with me during our first meeting. I smiled as he explained that his team had “serious concerns” about my credibility; there were claims that I had fabricated my experience working in Silicon Valley, and claims that my user growth projections for BBM — which were incredibly close to the real, internal numbers — probably came from leaked data rather than hard research.

I told Mike I had no interest in defending myself against his executives’ moronic attacks. I was more than happy to hop on the next flight out of Canada, particularly because every minute in Waterloo was one less minute spent enjoying life in early 2010s NYC and LA, right before these cities were ruined by mass-adoption of smartphones. Watching a company go down the tubes — again — wasn’t high on my priority list. Perhaps it was this complete and utter indifference that led Mike to overrule his executive team; thus began my descent into a world of unparalleled incompetence.

Mike had me meet with lots of people at RIM. While I found the company’s rank-and-file employees to be extremely hard-working and talented, I had to work very hard to hide my disdain and disgust when in the presence of senior executives. Mike proudly explained that, “I like hiring the #2 guy from places — they’re usually a lot cheaper and have more to prove;” RIM’s fate demonstrated how utterly disastrous this strategy proved to be. Whenever I met a RIM executive, I thought to myself, “this idiot is going to destroy the company to please their own ego.” And they did.

Late-Stage RIM was every bit the masterclass in executive incompetence that you might imagine it to be; a bestiary of idiots sourced from all of the world’s fallen icons (Nokia, Motorola, Nortel, whatever) could be found within RIM’s org chart. Watching boring, incompetent people scramble to capture as much value for themselves as possible, self-congratulating while destroying the world’s first and only truly secure global messaging platform, was equal parts fascinating and depressing. One particularly amusing example: Mike had me share my strategy papers on turning BlackBerry Messenger into a developer platform with one of his most trusted employees, whom he had placed in charge of BBM; that guy worked on several “improvements” to BBM which ruined the product’s usability, then jumped ship to Facebook and became the lead on the “Facebook Messenger Platform” — an overhyped pile of trash.

Looking back, the key trait that could be identified among these executives — the tell-tale sign of an idiot whose incompetence was dangerous to the long-term health of the organization of which they are part — was the desire to engage in work, and to assert expertise, in areas where they had never actually spent any on-the-ground time gaining real insight. These idiots never understood that, regardless of whether you call it a “product” or a “feature” or a “service,” everything humans create and use is a byproduct of culture; if you don’t actually understand that culture, and aren’t part of it, you’re likely to be dangerously off the mark. Case in point: BBM was so successful because it was created as a fun side project by university students working at RIM; like so many good things, they created it to fit into their own habits and culture.

Okay, okay. You’re reading this, and you’re thinking, “cool story guy, happy for you, or sad that happened — but what does this have to do with Apple, in 2021?” Yeah, okay, let’s get to the point.

I’m not going to explain the “child safety” features Apple has announced they will implement in iOS 15, as there are far better explanations all over the Internet. The situation is extremely confusing to those who understand the facts of the matter: while keeping children safe should be one of humanity’s greatest priorities, blowing up the entire privacy model of iOS in a half-baked attempt to accomplish this, in partnership with an unelected, unaccountable private corporation, makes little to no sense. For a company whose identity is built upon an infamous “1984” ad and a “privacy first” mantra to actively participate in the erosion of democracy and the handing-over of police and investigative powers to private entities — regardless of the nature of the crime — is borderline insane.

After the public uproar over Apple’s announcement, an internal memo leaked from within the company, in which the corporate vice president in charge of the initiative claimed the extremely smart, sophisticated security experts ringing alarm bells about the new system had “misunderstandings,” and asserted that he was “proud to work at Apple with such an amazing team.” My mind immediately took me back to RIM, and to utterly moronic, incompetent executives “proud” to push offensively bad trash onto customers’ devices. On a whim, I decided to search for a combination of the Apple executive’s name and Research In Motion, to see what might turn up.

Ah, yes, the continuation of a grand legacy:

A contract signed by [the executive] gave him a promotion to BlackBerry EVP of Platform Development… on September 27, 2013 — both while BlackBerry was under a promotional freeze… and while [he] was in discussions about moving to Apple.

[The executive] came to BlackBerry in 2010 when then-Research In Motion purchased QNX and used that software to build the basis of the BlackBerry PlayBook and BlackBerry 10.

Let me unpack this for you.

This guy worked on RIM’s shift from BBOS to QNX — a disastrous engineering project that ultimately killed the BlackBerry. As QNX came to RIM through a multi-million-dollar acquisition, and this executive “worked closely with the founder and CEO,” we can imagine he got a nice pay package for his profound lack of ability; then, because that wasn’t enough for him, he decided to jostle for a promotion while simultaneously trying to run away from the dumpster fire he had helped to create. Years later, he re-emerges at Apple (probably alongside a few other equally-stupid colleagues of similar lineage whose names weren’t included on that “leaked” memo), and brags about a project that achieves the ultimate dream of every idiotic, useless middle-manager trying to justify their existence and feel as though their “work” has any actual significance or relevance: a project which, as he says in his own words, “required deep cross-functional commitment, spanning Engineering, GA, HI, Legal, Product Marketing and PR.” As one of my corporate lawyers used to say when reading statements like that in emails: “I bet he got hard while writing that.”

The people running the internal initiative to sabotage Apple’s privacy platform are not cut from the same cloth as the NeXT-era crowd that built modern-day Apple into the titan it has become, just as the executives of 2010s RIM weren’t the ones who built RIM into the secure messaging marvel it once was. The only architectural brilliance in Apple’s “child safety” initiative is in its politics: it seems that this guy and his colleagues discovered the one initiative that could never get shot down by Apple’s social-justice-obsessed executive ranks. They’ve masterfully played with their organization’s cultural values to corral massive internal resources for a poorly-thought-out pet project — and they’ve even managed to get it pushed through to production.

To everyone working with the idiot from RIM on this project, let me say — and I really do mean this — I am completely, utterly impressed with what you’ve done. The idiots who ruined RIM managed to destroy tens of billions of dollars’ worth of value; y’all are gonna burn through a trillion. For real.

I promised myself I wouldn’t spend more than a couple hours on this, so let’s wrap things up.

First, if you work at Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp and you’re feeling really good about yourself in the midst of this mess, let me tell you about the glass house in which you live. Want to know why I turned on Facebook, and ran away from my role as an advisor to executives at the company? Why did I want to destroy your company? Because I witnessed one of Facebook Inc.’s founders engage in predatory sexual behavior with an underaged girl, while on the job. That’s right, you idiots — you work for sexual predators.

There’s a lot more I could say about that, but really — the fact that a pack of predators is scoring points on this situation just adds to the insanity of the whole thing.

Second, regarding the matter that is supposed to be at the center of all of this — you know, child safety…

I think it’s insane that Apple is allowed to sell iPhones without any controls whatsoever to people under 13. We — as in, the mobile industry — never designed smartphones to be used by young children, and we never anticipated that every single human activity would be visualized, simulated, performed, planned, whatever using the smartphone. If Apple truly cared about children, the company would create entirely separate versions of their operating systems and devices for people in that age category. And, more immediately, they would cut off people under 13 from accessing the same App Store as everyone else; the “dangers” of iMessage pale in comparison to the portals of darkness that are quickly accessible through the App Store (particularly, Instagram and YouTube, which can be cancerous for untrained minds of all ages). The fact that the executives at Apple didn’t do these simple, obvious things, and instead chose to focus on an over-engineered mess that “required deep cross-functional commitment, spanning Engineering, GA, HI, Legal, Product Marketing and PR,” shows that they’re really just building stuff to impress themselves. The “innovations” at the center of the current fiasco will do very, very little to solve the underlying problems Apple has created for society in their cynical, subversive targeting of children for sales of devices and in-app purchases — and politicians, regulators and others should not let them get away with this.

When looking at the other component of Apple’s “child safety” scheme, the scanning of imagery, we can once again see the damage caused by a bunch of incompetent idiots trying to score points for themselves. I am neither anti-government nor anti-law enforcement, so I don’t have an issue with the idea of a photo hash detection system. What I find scary to the point of dystopian, however, is that this photo hash set is owned and controlled by a private corporation, over which no government official or elected representative has any oversight. More disturbing still: regardless of the fact that its creation was mandated by Congress, it’s a private corporation which has been given a monopoly on the detection and enforcement of a broad range of digital crime in the US.

Apple is rich and powerful, and supposedly staffed by very smart people trying to make the world a better place — and has tons of lobbyists; they could have partnered with federal and state officials, and with governmental officials in foreign countries, to create a new detection system that was open and subject to the strong controls and oversight that we should expect from something so serious. Instead, they took the cheap startup option of partnering with the private corporation offering them a free giveaway — and threw away the civil liberties of more than a billion people in the process. The privatization of crime — prisons, law enforcement, the whole thing — is a major threat to social stability in the United States. Why are Apple executives working so hard to make the problem worse?

Okay, well, my time is up. That’s all I have to say. If you work at Apple, or you’re a shareholder, take it from someone who’s seen this story before: you’re screwed. The long-term effects of people engaged in these sorts of arrogant, reckless, user- and society-hostile behaviors … It’s obvious. Unless Apple’s senior leaders conduct a purge of their ranks similar to the whole Forstall-Maps thing, the cancer of incompetence will keep spreading, until the host is unable to survive.

First they came for the iMessages — as a customer, I’m not sure I want to stick around to see what happens next.



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