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BlackBerry fate watched in Waterloo

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The speculation that BlackBerry could soon cut 40 per cent of its workforce has fallen on Waterloo Region like a dense, black cloud. The fact the company, which was founded and is headquartered here, will neither confirm nor deny the disturbing report that originated this week in the Wall Street Journal does nothing to dispel this cloud or the anxieties it has brought.

Of course, the greatest concern at the moment is for the estimated 5,000 people who work for BlackBerry in this region. Worse than any cloud, there is a sword hanging over them as they look ahead to a future of uncertainty and challenge. The thoughts of this community are with them.

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But strangely, a shaft of light has broken through this gloom. Square, an American high-tech company started by the co-founder of the wildly successful Twitter, announced Thursday it will greatly expand its operations in Waterloo Region in 2014. It is true, of course, the 30 jobs this will initially bring will in no way compensate for the hundreds, even thousands that could be lost at BlackBerry if this week's reports come true. But this recently arrived startup is part of the full picture of this region's economy, and it should not be ignored.

So much attention is rightly focused on BlackBerry, a unique enterprise that was born here and grew to become Canada's largest tech company as well as a globally recognized brand that, through its pioneering of smartphones, revolutionized how people communicate. Yet its rapid and celebrated rise was followed by a quick, depressing decline. The smartphones that were supposed to reverse this trend when first released earlier this year were acclaimed by critics yet failed to persuade enough consumers to buy them. In August, BlackBerry announced it is exploring an array of options, including the possible sale of the company. After this week's report of looming job cuts, business pundits suggested a leaner BlackBerry company might be more attractive to potential buyers.

BlackBerry's official response to the reports of heavy job losses is deeply unsatisfying. "We will not comment on rumours or speculation," the company said in an emailed statement to The Record. Yet, if the rumours and speculation are unfounded, why not say so? We know BlackBerry has cut 5,000 jobs worldwide since it started restructuring last year and that in the last two months the company has laid off more than 300 employees in this community.

BlackBerry is held in high esteem in this region -- and rightly so for how it has enriched the area economically, intellectually and culturally. But in the interest of this community, BlackBerry should be more forthcoming with information.

Until that information comes, we all wait -- the residents of this region and BlackBerry employees alike. We all have a stake. The loss of even more BlackBerry jobs would be a severe blow to the local economy. But we should not talk ourselves into a panic or fear we will become a Canadian version of Detroit.

Waterloo Region's 5,000 BlackBerry jobs must be seen in light of the 30,000 tech professionals who, according to the Communitech technology association, are employed in local industry. There are more than 1,000 tech firms in this region and among them are the global headquarters for OpenText, Canada's largest software company, Com Dev, Canada's largest satellite company, Desire2Learn, Canada's largest eLearning company, and Christie Digital Systems Canada, one of the world's top producers of visual technology displays.

And soon, the American mobile payments company known as Square will take a more prominent place beside them when it opens a new and bigger local office. Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, we will do more than survive. We will thrive.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A17

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