[UPDATED 9/23/13] Don't stop me if you've heard this before: BlackBerry, the company once known as Research in Motion that for more than a decade defined mobile communications, isn't likely to last a year. That likely fate became clearer than ever this week, with revenues half what were expected despite the new BlackBerry 10 platform, and so 4,500 people were laid off on Friday. And today, the company agreed to be bought by the private equity arm of Canadian insurer Fairfax Financial, which may mean the company's few salable assets will be sold in pieces, unless Fairfax and its unnamed Canadian partners decide to try to a long-term turnaround of the Canadian BlackBerry as a form of nationalistic support.
Let's retrace its missteps: For several years, BlackBerry stubbornly clung to a smartphone strategy that wasn't working any more: providing very secure messaging devices to a world that wanted apps and the freedom to do all sorts of stuff on their devices. Most of us thought it was a goner. Then this past winter, after ditching its founders, a chastened BlackBerry delivered the BlackBerry 10 OS in the form of the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone. That provided a credible platform for modern mobile computing while continuing to offer the security advantages long part of the BlackBerry value proposition. The keyboard-oriented BlackBerry Q10 followed a few months later.
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Although BlackBerry 10 was no threat to the iPhone or Android, it should have been the platform of choice for businesses that need highly secure devices: financial services, defense contractors, health care providers, and senior executives in any business. For several years, these industries have been saying they needed such a platform and that iOS and Android weren't it. But apparently not -- businesses aren't buying BlackBerrys, despite the credible new BlackBerry 10 OS and decent devices. The new BlackBerry is no iPhone or Android smartphone, but when security really matters, the BlackBerry Z10 or Q10 is good enough, especially as a communicator device.
Even worse, most of the BlackBerrys that businesses are still buying are the old BlackBerry 7 models, not the new BlackBerry 10 ones. I'm shocked, given BlackBerry 10's clear superiority. Perhaps IT doesn't want to invest in the new BlackBerry server required to support BlackBerry 10 devices given the company's sad state.
Adding fuel to the fire this spring, the feds approved iPhones and some Android devices for all but the most sensitive uses, and this week the feds finally certified Windows Phone 8 for the crucial FIPS 140-2 encryption standard. As a result, the businesses that should have provided BlackBerry a viable market have instead abandoned it. Former Gartner analyst Phillip Redman tells me his recent survey of enterprises showed they have no plans to buy BlackBerrys and have only kicked the tires of BES10.
Likewise, Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin tells me, "Most of our corporate clients and those we have surveyed have already moved away from BlackBerry. These companies are largely satisfied with the level of security provided by iOS and Android when supplemented with good device management solutions. There remain small pockets where BlackBerry remains because of security leadership but it is very small."
The results are not pretty. BlackBerry's board is exploring "strategic options," meaning a sale of all or part of the company. But Reuters reports there's little interest in the company, and none for its smartphones. Its patents may have less value than expected due to their use in standards, which means a new buyer can't raise their licensing fees easily. And BlackBerry's two other big revenue streams -- its BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) management platform and its network operations center for handling secure messages -- have value only if there are BlackBerrys around to manage and send those secure messages.
It's perhaps no surprise that the Wall Street Journal has reported earlier this week that BlackBerry will lay off 40 percent of its staff before the year is out. The company didn't wait that long, announcing them on Friday, September 20. It revealed it earned only $1.6 billion in the last queter, nowhere near the concensus estimate of $3.2 billion, and that the company has nearly $1 billion in unsold devcies it is writing off.