In a move that seemed to surprise exactly nobody in the tech world, BlackBerry announced that it would consider selling itself to the highest bidder.
BlackBerry has endured its woes for quite some time: tumbling smartphone market-share in the face of brutal competition from Google Android and Apple iOS, the continued loss of its core customer base in the enterprise world (thanks in large part to the Bring Your Own Device phenomenon), and the inability to break into new markets (the less said about the PlayBook tablet, the better). That market erosion translated into falling profits and, eventually, the sort of brutal layoffs and project shutdowns that one associates with companies on the decline.
According to BlackBerry’s announcement, the company’s Board of Directors will found a Special Committee to explore “strategic alternatives to enhance value and increase scale,” which apparently includes “possible joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the Company or other possible transactions.” The company’s current overhead-reduction strategy, which could include layoffs, will apparently continue during those considerations.
BlackBerry had bet its future success on BlackBerry 10, its next-generation operating system. Its first devices to utilize that software were the Z10 and Q10 “hero” smartphones, loaded with top-quality hardware; earlier this summer, the company also announced the Q5, a device with a physical QWERTY keyboard aimed at the midrange global market.
But the Z10 and Q10 failed to become blockbusters, which led analysts and industry-watchers to resume their calls of gloom and doom. Now that BlackBerry’s announced that a company sale is on the table—again, not a shocker to anyone even vaguely aware of its fortunes over the past few years—it’s worth considering who would snatch it off the market, and why.
Cisco: The networking company has spent the past few quarters retrenching as an enterprise-centric firm, cutting back on its consumer products (anyone remember the Flip camera?) while emphasizing business platforms such as the converged datacenter. Purchasing BlackBerry would buttress its enterprise efforts—despite its decline, BlackBerry still retains considerable loyalty among workers in many industries—and give it a variety of IT infrastructure patents that could prove useful in future court battles.
Dell: Dell has dabbled in tablets and smartphones, but those efforts never managed to catch fire with consumers and businesses. If Dell bought BlackBerry, it would inherit a massive audience and a well-tested portfolio of products. Given Dell’s current financial drama right now, though, it might not have the funds or initiative to fund and support such an acquisition to the necessary degree.
Huawei or Lenovo: A Chinese manufacturer seeking a bigger foothold on the international market could come in and snatch up BlackBerry. (ZTE is also a potential candidate as an acquirer.) Huawei has faced some pushback over security from the U.S. government, which could complicate its efforts in the federal space if it were to actually acquire BlackBerry; aside from that, such a purchase would instantly give it (or Lenovo) a major presence in smartphones.
Microsoft: This seems the most unlikely of the potential candidates bandied about by the tech media today, but it makes a certain kind of warped sense. By buying up BlackBerry, Microsoft would lock down the third rank in the smartphone market (behind Apple and Google); the purchase would also strengthen Microsoft’s position in enterprise mobility. However, owning BlackBerry could also spark massive internal fights, as the teams behind Microsoft’s homegrown Windows Phone platform would feel compelled to fight for resources and attention.
Apple or Google: Both companies have huge cash reserves at their disposal, and buying BlackBerry would allow them to take a weakened-but-potent competitor off the market. But if either company tried to snatch BlackBerry up, their competitors would scream “antitrust” all the way to the world’s governments, which would probably feel compelled to step in and stop a deal.
Hewlett-Packard: Like Dell, HP has tried and failed to break into the mobility market, and buying BlackBerry would give it an instant presence in that arena. HP is also known for making giant acquisitions (such as Autonomy) and running them as semi-autonomous units, although a few of those big buys have become ignoble failures.
Whichever company buys BlackBerry—if a company buys BlackBerry—is in for a ride. Once the dominant smartphone maker, it now lags well behind Google Android and Apple iOS. Reviving the brand would present an epic challenge.