BlackBerry Doesn't Need to Stake Its Survival on Consumer Handsets
NEWS ANALYSIS: There's a lot more to BlackBerry than handsets in what is now a secure-messaging ecosystem based on a sophisticated real-time operating system.
The headlines would have you believe that BlackBerry is doomed and should be sold off as quickly as possible. The company, some observers say, can never return to the level of popularity and profitability it enjoyed in the early days of smartphones.
To some extent they're right, but that's not the whole story. That's because BlackBerry is about more than just handsets.
While the company announced on Aug. 12 that its board had formed a special committee to explore business opportunities that include selling the company, the fact is that the special committee can take a number of actions that don't involve selling off all or part of the company. In fact, selling the company isn't the most likely scenario.
It's important to take a look at all of BlackBerry before proclaiming that the company is on its deathbed. For one thing, this action was signaled some time ago prior to the introduction of the BlackBerry 10 when CEO Thorsten Heins said that the company would explore alternatives once it had gotten past the launch of its new OS and new handsets. Now that those items are accomplished, BlackBerry is already moving on to the next items on the checklist.
BlackBerry started working on those next when the company announced the BlackBerry Enterprise Service would support iOS and Android devices in its Secure Work Space service. Now BlackBerry is looking for ways to position the company so that it can take advantage of other opportunities. Problem is that BlackBerry is a public company, which means that it must focus on quarterly results, not on the long term. And what BlackBerry needs to do right now is plan and build for the long term.
The best way to do this, at least from the BlackBerry board's view, appears to be by taking the company private. That way the company can revise its approach and have enough breathing room to get it done. This will allows the board and the special committee to look for the best way to leverage
And make no mistake;despite its tepid handset sales, BlackBerry does have significant strength. Perhaps more important, the company has significant resources. The company has enough cash on hand to operate for quite a while without generating a profit, although it probably hopes it won't have to.
BlackBerry's two most significant strengths are its secure network and QNX. The BlackBerry network is secure enough that from time to time, governments annoyed that their intelligence agencies can't crack BlackBerry's encryption, try to ban the devices.
This is the network that the company has now brought to iOS and Android, growing its penetration beyond its own devices and helping ensure that it has a pathway to the future regardless of whether anyone buys another BlackBerry smartphone or not.
The role of QNX is probably more important to BlackBerry because it lives mostly in the world beyond the turmoil of handsets and fashion. While BlackBerry 10 is a version of QNX, this microkernel-based real-time operating system reaches far beyond the smartphone.
There's a high likelihood that QNX lives inside the late-model car you drive, the industrial controllers that make your company's HVAC system operate, and it may be in the medical systems you hear beeping along hospital corridors. QNX may be in the avionics that control the airliner that takes you to the other coast and in the control systems of that nuclear power plant that you're flying over on the way.
With so many disparate parts of the company serving so many different types of customers, it's easy to see why some have suggested that BlackBerry sell off the best parts to make its stockholders more money than they would make if the company stayed intact, and when that's done, simply dissolve the company. But this also explains why there's such a strong interest in taking the company private.
With such a broad focus, BlackBerry could retreat completely from the smartphone business and keep running its network and its real-time operating system. But that's not likely to happen if only because BlackBerry has a solid core of customers for whom there is no alternative.
For many government users in the United States and elsewhere, BlackBerry devices are the only choice. While iOS and Android devices have been approved for some government uses, for others BlackBerry is the approved standard. The same is true for users in sensitive positions in financial services, pharmaceuticals and software development to name a few. So while BlackBerry's consumer business might shrink, that's not the same thing as saying that the company is doomed.
Interestingly, BlackBerry also remains a favorite in many emerging economies for the same reason that it's popular in sensitive environments. It's hard to steal data from a BlackBerry, and in those regions in the world where repression is the order of the day, a BlackBerry provides critical protection.
What it really means when you read predictions of reports of BlackBerry's impending demise is that U.S.-focused observers who think about consumer electronics believe that BlackBerry's share of the consumer market will drop. This is one part of BlackBerry's business, and it doesn't necessarily threaten the company's existence. There's a big world beyond consumer cell phones in the U.S., and that's probably where BlackBerry is looking.