A 30-year-old law that will force Barack Obama to surrender his BlackBerry before assuming office offends Nick Bontis, an associate professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. But controversy over the requirement is doing wonders for Research in Motion Ltd., the Waterloo, Ont.-based inventors of the device, he says.
Bontis, who has studied the use of technology in government (along with BlackBerry addiction), spoke to Maclean’s correspondent Charlie Gillis.
Q: Why in your view does a modern President need a BlackBerry?
A: Obama won the election and drew such large crowds to begin with because he engaged with youth through technology. He had a blog. He had a website. He used SMS text messaging. Now the White House lawyers are going to take away the tool that allowed him to win.
Q: Doesn’t he have minions to send and receive electronic messages for him?
A: He does, but there are a couple of things to remember. One, he’s a family man. So if one of his daughters emails asking, ‘Are you coming to my soccer game tonight?’ he won’t be able to write back to saying, ‘Yes I am dear.’ I think that’s ridiculous. Second, Obama has a circle of advisors—some of them luminaries in their own right—who will communicate with him through official channels like presidential-seal letters, memos and other documented materials. Those are people who know what he wants to hear. What he wants is to be able to also seek the opinions of academic friends, or other consultants who are not part of his inner circle. He’s very engaged in that way, and that’s what he typically uses his BlackBerry for.
Q: Can’t he just keep a separate one for personal use?
A: The Presidential Records Act of 1978 stipulates that all correspondence from the President must be documented and archived. He cannot distinguish between business messages and personal messages.
Q: The objective of the law, as I understand it, is to keep all the President’s communications on record for purposes of accountability, transparency and historical perspective. Is that not laudable?
A: It is, but that’s just one objective. The other issue that gets raised is security—what if someone clones his BlackBerry and pretends to be him. It’s also true that most BlackBerries now have GPS chips in them. So there’s some concern that someone could crack it and determine his exact physical location.
Q: What do you make of those fears?
A: I don’t think the security argument is a real one. RIM has done a fantastic job promoting its encryption as the best on the planet. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. government employees use BlackBerries for that very reason. The head of the CIA, the heads of the FBI and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are going to have BlackBerries. Yet Obama won’t be allowed to use one to communicate with these advisors. Last year, there was a big story about how the government of India had to do a lot of tests on the encrytion of the BlackBerry before they would allow their officials to use it. RIM passed all of those tests with flying colours. So at this point, there isn’t a cogent argument for there being a potential security risk.
Q: What’s the upside been for RIM in having Obama implicitly endorse the product?
A: Tiger Woods or David Beckham charge $10 million or $15 million for an endorsement. This particular case not only involves one of the most recognizable people on the planet, but a man people are going to remember for generations to come. Obama always seems to have one of these things in his hand, and you just can’t purchase that kind of advertising. Some experts have valued this visibility at $50 million. Obama’s not getting a penny, but you can bet our friends in Waterloo are just salivating over their good fortune.
Q: Haven’t they already gotten the payoff?
A: Oh, I think taking the BlackBerry away from the president is going to be another boon for RIM. I’ll gaze into a crystal ball for you. For the first month, he just freaks out because he has to have it. He has a crackberry addiction. As a result, he spearheads a review and rewriting of the Presidential Records Act …
Q: Getting a law rewritten so the President can use your product would be hard to top, all right.
A: It really is an amazing story for RIM. As it stands, there’s a high probability that the last email Obama sends will be just prior to his inauguration. It would be quite funny if pulling out the BlackBerry were his last act as a normal civilian.
Q: Of course, it could backfire. He could always switch to an iPhone.
A: The good news is, he’s already an addicted BlackBerry user. And we know from my academic research that, once you go BlackBerry, you tend not to go to anything else.