BlackBerry is now where Motorola once was, and has no choice but to sell

Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins just ran out of time.
Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins just ran out of time.
Image: AP Photo/Geoff Robins
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BlackBerry has been under pressure to sell before, but this time, as the board officially announces the that the company is for sale, it’s different. BlackBerry’s attempt to reinvent itself with a totally new operating system and high-end hardware has, as predicted, failed to reverse the company’s fortunes. The most recent data on the company’s market share show a seemingly inexorable slide into irrelevance in BlackBerry’s most important market, the US, and investors know it: the company’s share price is down 38% in the past three months. June saw a surprise quarterly loss, and globally BlackBerry is down to a subscriber base of 72 million, from 83 million subscribers just six months ago, as smartphones running Google’s Android operating system pummel Blackberry in emerging economies.

Dire straits

This hasn’t stopped the company’s leaders from arguing that the company just needs more time to complete a turnaround, but even Canadians, many of whom have an almost cult-like worship for their home-grown tech hero, are ready to admit defeat. The importance of BlackBerry to Canada, symbolically if not financially, is hard to overstate. Despite the dire news for BlackBerry, Canada’s national pension plan is willing to stake what could be hundreds of millions on the company if it goes private, and in the recent past Ottawa offered to pay Spanish mobile company Telefónica to buy BlackBerry phones.

Clearly, BlackBerry has been backed into a corner by its losses and the exodus of its consumer base. While going private could give BlackBerry more time, there’s little evidence doing so would reverse its fortunes. What BlackBerry needs is a buyer with plans to overhaul the company in the way that Google has breathed new life into another once-great pioneer of the mobile industry, Motorola. Potential buyers range from Microsoft to Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers like Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi.

Not too proud to sell to a foreign company

But would BlackBerry—and Canada—sell to a foreign investor? The situation may be desperate enough that Canadians are ready to see the crown jewel of their tech industry go to a company with a plan. In June 2012, the right-leaning Ottawa-based think tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute released a paper (pdf) suggesting that the country shouldn’t be afraid of a foreign buyer for BlackBerry. Selling to a foreign investor—in its case a Chinese auto manufacturer—seems to have worked for Volvo, and China’s various tech giants certainly have the capital to buy a beleaguered BlackBerry.

Microsoft in the wings

The other question is, will any of these companies want what BlackBerry has to offer? BlackBerry has a large portfolio of patents, but its ability to manufacture phones must also be a consideration in any deal. Might Microsoft buy BlackBerry, as it has reportedly tried to in the past? The deal doesn’t necessarily make much sense, but Microsoft has a habit of copying Google’s moves, however illogical they are for Microsoft. Now that Google has its own in-house phone manufacturer in Motorola, it might be another one of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s just-so-crazy-it-might work efforts to revive both Microsoft’s—and BlackBerry’s—fortunes.