Will BlackBerry's Future Be A Piecemeal Sale?

BlackBerry has formed a committee to explore strategic options. The company faces several challenges that make a sale of the entire organization look unlikely.
BlackBerry Monday signaled that change is on the way. The beleaguered smartphone maker's board of directors announced that the company has formed a special committee tasked with exploring strategic alternatives. Those alternatives include the possibility of joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, and even an outright sale of the company. The committee will evaluate all its options moving forward and will ultimately decide BlackBerry's long-term fate.

"Today, BlackBerry blackened its future, admitting it has no idea about how to compete and grow market share itself," said Bob Egan, founder and CEO, Sepharim Group. "They admitted defeat." Indeed.

The board's task is not an easy one. The company has a string of failures stretching back years, with few shining moments.

[ Could going private buy BlackBerry valuable turnaround time? Read BlackBerry Ponders Going Private. ]

BlackBerry launched a brand-new smartphone platform, BlackBerry 10, earlier this year, and with it two new smartphones. BlackBerry hasn't said definitively how many BlackBerry 10 devices it has sold since the February launch of the Z10, but we know it sold only 2.7 million BB10 phones during its most recent quarter. The hardware of these newer devices is of middling quality, and the operating system doesn't quite compete with those from Apple and Google.

According to IDC, Strategy Analytics and others, BlackBerry's worldwide share of the smartphone market has fallen below that of Microsoft's struggling Windows Phone platform. In other words, BlackBerry 10 has a single-digit market share and is fighting for last place among the major mobile operating systems. Who wants to buy the last-place company, especially one that squandered an incredible lead?

Before BlackBerry 10, the company didn't release a significant new smartphone for almost an entire year. That allowed Apple, Samsung and others to steal its core enterprise customer base. BlackBerry failed miserably at competing in the tablet market with the ill-conceived PlayBook, which famously shipped without mobile email. BlackBerry has missed many of its own self-imposed deadlines for product launches. (Where's BBM for Android and iOS?) And its financials are an utter mess, with its stock roughly 75% off its all-time high.

What is it that BlackBerry might actually be able to sell? Surely it still has an attractive base of enterprise customers -- if not in the U.S., then elsewhere around the world. Maybe other mobile device management firms would like to snap up its BES 10 technology and add it to their own MDM services. It's hard to envision another company might want to buy BlackBerry's struggling handset division, save perhaps for upstart firms looking for BlackBerry's manufacturing facilities.

BlackBerry's patents? Probably not a good acquisition target. BlackBerry famously lost a mobile email patent fight with NTP several years ago and was socked with a monstrous $640 million fine.

At best, BlackBerry can hope to sell pieces of itself to competitors. An outright sale of the entire company doesn't seem plausible. The best-case scenario might include a sale of its handset business to another firm, while it keeps its operating system and BES businesses in order to license them out.

It's also difficult to see how partnerships, alliances or joint ventures will help BlackBerry. The company has a cloudy future, of that there is no doubt. With any luck, its board will find a forecast that has at least a few rays of sunshine in it.

BlackBerry did not provide any guidance on when it might make a decision about its future. Change might come quickly now that the firm is effectively for sale, or it might not come at all.

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