Don Pittis: Who would want to buy a BlackBerry?
Who the heck would want to buy a BlackBerry? Now that the company has announced it is looking for a buyer, suddenly the question has a double meaning.
In the consumer sense, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company got two pieces of bad news last week. The first bit was the answer to that question: "A whole lot fewer people."
According to the research firm IDC, BlackBerry smartphones slipped to fourth position in the sales charts behind Android, Apple and an upstart operating system called Microsoft Windows. Yep, Windows for phones. Just reboot when the screen turns blue.
The sales survey showed BlackBerry market share fell from 4.9 per cent of the global market last year to 2.9 per cent this year, "reaching levels not seen in the history of IDC's Mobile Phone Tracker," said the analyst's worrying report.
The Windows growth was based on sales of a nice new phone from Nokia, the Finland-based ghost from the past that BlackBerry crushed 10 years ago when it dazzled the world with the shocking new concept of email-in-your-pocket.
In this business of light-speed changes, suddenly the tables have turned. Again.
If being creamed by the widely scorned Windows brand wasn't bad enough, a second piece of news twisted the knife. That was the appearance in the hands of reviewers of Moto X, a phone launched by another ghost from the era of dumb phones, Motorola. The name Motorola is not so scary until you know that it is now the corporate hand puppet of the most dangerous tech competitor operating today: Google.
So this is what BlackBerry is up against. Google and Microsoft, along with Apple and Samsung, global companies seething with brilliant young techno-geeks all inventing new ways to make smartphones even smarter, or perhaps inventing them out of existence altogether.
More on this in a moment, but first, back to second meaning of the question we started with.
Who wants to own a BlackBerry, as in the company? The obvious and troubling answer is that any one of the smartphone giants could buy it up and gut it for its patents. This year, after analyzing the selloff of Nortel patents, Scotiabank doubled the value of BlackBerry's to $2.25 billion.
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Still, that is like buying up a working factory and selling the machinery as scrap metal. As a successful smartphone competitor, the Canadian company would be worth a lot more. It already has a famous brand, a core of well-heeled users, a respected history, a secure platform, and a global retail and support network. It also has a phone with a keyboard.
But those advantages are shrinking day by day.
To extract BlackBerry's value as a smartphone competitor, any buyer would have to be willing to play the enormously expensive game of endless one-up-manship that characterizes this business. A game that Blackberry lost by resting on its laurels.
This is why the arrival of Moto X is such an important signal to Blackberry's future. Among other things, the new Motorola phone introduces Google's most sophisticated voice communications. You turn it on by talking to it. It knows when you are driving and reads your texts aloud. It takes us rushing in the direction of a phone so smart it's no longer a phone at all, it's just a constant presence.
So who would want to play this game as BlackBerry's new owner?
Not likely one of the companies that has already invested heavily in its own champion. Microsoft has expressed an interest in the past, but that was before its recent cellphone success.
Asia is littered with lesser-known technology companies that would benefit from owning a famous western brand. But BlackBerry is a high-cost phone maker in a world where devices that would have been a miracle of science fiction less than a decade ago have become commodities where cheapness counts.
The other proposal mooted last week is for a consortium of private capital to buy up the company's stock, giving BlackBerry what the IDC report called the "time and resources to evangelize more end users."
That is probably the best outcome for BlackBerry as a functioning Canadian smartphone company. Going toe to toe with the tech titans, without your own titan on board, is also probably the riskiest.
But as Nokia and Motorola have just shown, tough as it is, there is always room for a comeback.