BlackBerry's bleak options: Will anyone really want to buy it?

As BlackBerry's board of directors formally begin exploring "strategic alternatives," they'll find their options limited

As BlackBerry's board of directors formally begin exploring "strategic alternatives," business speak for fiuguring out how to dump the company on someone else, they'll find their options limited, according to two IT sector analysts. All the likely alternatives call for a much-diminished company, or one broken up into some software assets and a brand value that's declining every day. 

[ Galen Gruman explains why BlackBerry 10's flop won't help Microsoft's Windows Phone. | Read Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog for what the key business trends mean to you. ]

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The board announced Monday the creation of a special committee to explore options to "enhance value and increase scale in order to accelerate" deployment of its BlackBerry 10 mobile operating system and server applications. In theory, everything is on the table, according to the company's statement, including "possible joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the company, and other possible transactions."

But potential partners and buyers are unlikely to see the same opportunities as BlackBerry's board, given that its new generation of smartphones, running the innovative BlackBerry 10 operating system, have failed to ignite consumer interest since being released earlier this year. 

"BlackBerry is really three companies," says Jack Gold, a principal at J. Gold Associates, an IT research and strategy consultancy. "There's BlackBerry the device, BlackBerry the services, and BlackBerry the community. Each has differing value." 

The new BlackBerry 10 smartphones have received mixed reviews. Many reviewers gave BlackBerry an "A" for effort but said the first phones suffer by comparison to the Apple iPhone and Android rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S III. 

Services assets include the BlackBerry Enterprise Services 10 server (for securing and managing multiple mobile operating systems), secure messaging, and the well-regarded BlackBerry Messenger for text and now video chat and collaboration. "It includes all the mobile device management [MDM] stuff," says Gold. "A cloud-based, cross-platform solution [from BlackBerry] for MDM, mobile application management, and security is the same market that companies like AirWatch and MobileIron have been going after. That could be an attractive stand-alone [business], or an acquisition by one of the other players in that space."

The BlackBerry community includes 60 million Messenger users, according to Gold, and a total of global base of roughly 90 million. That base could interest emerging smartphone makers in China and other parts of Asia -- companies such as Huawei, ZTE, and Tata -- if they see those millions as evidence of still-existing brand value. Despite BlackBerry's massive decline in the U.S., "it's still a recognized brand," according to Gold. 

"Could one of them buy instant brand recognition and leverage the market?" Gold asks. "They could under the right circumstances." 

But the best outcome for BlackBerry is a leveraged buyout that takes the company private, according to Gold. "Once that's done, you're a private business without stockholders or government overseers," he says.  

But another analyst says there's less to BlackBerry's value than meets the eye. "BlackBerry Messenger is the only viable, attractive asset for a prospective buyer," says Jack Narcotta, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "The likelihood of BlackBerry existing as an independent software-only company is as slim as its cash reserves. The other assets and [the] subscriber base simply lack the scale needed to support transforming [the current company] into that business model." 

There's little that can be done to change that. "The fuel on the fire for BlackBerry as it exists today isn't so much that its software is lacking," Narcotta says. "It's that BlackBerry is being overwhelmed by the flood of Android and iOS devices coming over the walls into the enterprise." 

If there is a buyer, the most likely candidate is Samsung, he says. The South Korean smartphone maker has launched over the past year two programs to improve Android mobile security and management: Samsung for Enterprise (SAFE) improves security for Samsung phones and tablets targeted at enterprise users, and Knox provides security enhancements to the underlying Android operating system. 

"Samsung emerges as the most likely vendor to scoop up BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Enterprise Services and integrate them into Android," Narcotta says. "BBM dovetails with Samsung's Knox and SAFE security initiatives nicely. Most BB10 apps are ported versions of Android apps, somewhat streamlining the process for BBM's core kernels and software development kits to be 'Android-ized.'"

Neither analyst expects large-scale disruptions for enterprise BlackBerry and BES users, in part because so many have been already embracing iOS and Android. Narcotta says BlackBerry's future as an acquisition isn't "ideal" for customers but he's confident there will be a path to new vendors and services over time. 

"BlackBerry is not likely to simply cease to exist, and if you find benefit in BES, as many shops do, it's not likely you will simply be orphaned any time soon," says Gold. "Contingency plans are good, but no need to panic."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww. Email: john_cox@nww.com. Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "BlackBerry's bleak options: Will anyone really want to buy it?" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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