No sale: Why a new owner can't save the BlackBerry

A new CEO promises more of the same, so some investors call for RIM to be sold. Here's why that is a bad idea for troubled RIM

Within hours of Research in Motion getting a new CEO Sunday night, some investors were again calling for the company to be sold, having lost faith that RIM's management can save this listing ship. That's hardly a vote of confidence, nor a new desire. Just last week, rumors that Samsung was looking to buy RIM, caused Samsung to issue a swift public denial of any interest. Every few weeks, there seem to be rumors that some company wants to buy RIM. I suspect much of that talk is sparked by investors hoping for a quick runup in RIM's stock price so that they sell their shares at less of a loss; some no doubt comes from financial analysts and investors hoping to pressure RIM's management to fix the troubled device maker. But it would be a terrible mistake if it happened.

The reason that investors (and many IT organizations, I supect) call for a new owner is that they want a knight in shining armor to rescue the company, which dismissed the iPhone in 2007 as an inconsequential product and whose co-CEOs (now board members) have been repeating that assertion ever since, despite the ascendance of first the iPhone and then Google Android as RIM's own BlackBerry users began jumping ship. BlackBerry is now the distant No. 3 in the U.S. smartphone market as a result.

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But the sort-of-new CEO, Thorsten Heins (he had been the COO), is no fairy-tale white knight. He's promising to hold the course of RIM's unfulfilled business plan, making the usual noises about wanting to focus on the consumer and being innovative -- noises that RIM has made for a couple years but not delivered on. His concessions have so far been minor, such as indirect criticism of the slow delivery of products at RIM and a lukewarm willingness to eventually consider licensing the BlackBerry platform or its email software to others. Investors were not impressed, sending RIM's stock down 8 percent yesterday amid renewed calls for the company to be sold to some white knight.

The sad truth is that a white knight can't fix RIM with some magical sword anyway. If that were possible, it would have been done already. If someone were to buy RIM, you can kiss the platform good-bye, at least as a mainstream option. If RIM were to be bought, it would be stripped for its parts, and the BlackBerry would die sooner or later under the new owners. Fortunately for RIM, its low value means it's not likely to be bought, giving it time to resurrect itself -- regardless of the frustrations of its stockholders and financial analysts.

The truth is that if RIM is to rebound, it needs to save itself. Yes, RIM had proven multiple times that it can't execute anything really different than what it's already delivered, as its current BlackBerry 7 devices demostrate. That's why it's QNX-based BlackBerry reboot effort known as BlackBerry 10 OS -- whch has been delayed until late 2012 -- is so critical. I think it's RIM's last shot at surviving as a major mobile player. At this stage, RIM is too far into that effort to change directions yet again; this needs to work, or RIM needs to call it a day.

When RIM's stock tanked before the holidays -- a sign its investors were giving up on RIM -- I started asking analysts, CIOs, and others what they would miss about the BlackBerry were RIM to suddenly disappear. I expect RIM to linger for a few more years at least, but I posed the question that way to understand what the real value was they saw in today's RIM, to see if maybe RIM could use what it has already built as the basis for a comeback. If a white-knight scenario were to be plausible, there'd need to be such untapped value for a new buyer (or management team) to leverage.

I got few real answers, which suggests strongly that the value of RIM's technology portfolio has largely disappeared. RIM clearly came to the same conclusion more than a year ago when it announced it would drop its legacy BlackBerry platform in favor of the QNX operating system it bought in spring 2010. That need for a new core makes sense, given that the whole approach to devices, operating systems, and security management that traditional BlackBerry platform encapsulates belongs to a bygone era.

RIM was an amazing innovator in the early 2000s, bringing messaging capability to those on the road using the primitive paging networks of the day. We take that for granted now, but a decade ago, it was as revolutionary as the first PC, as Lotus Notes in its early years, and as the first laptop. Like Notes, the BlackBerry has become an awkward living fossil, a porked-up relic distorted and hobbled by the layers of stuff added over the years in an environment fundamentally changed by the iPhone and the consumerization phenomenon.

So what value does RIM still have? Here's the short list.

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