BlackBerry has been dying for a while, but the throes are particularly hard to ignore today. The company that pioneered the transformation of mobile phones into internet devices announced it might sell itself or enter a joint venture, a tacit admission that better smartphones from Apple and Google have left the company cornered and bloodied.
The Waterloo, Canada company has already been though a slew of failed turnaround efforts focused on its tablets and smartphones, including pivoting around a lean, UNIX-like operating system called QNX, which was acquired 2010.
Trouble is, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are far ahead of BlackBerry’s mobile platform in number of available apps, performance, and ease of use. BlackBerry reacted late to the rise of touch-based mobile devices and simply couldn’t catch up. The stock has fallen to less than one-twelfth its level five years ago, and now, pundits are suggesting it might be sold for parts, including its patent portfolio.
If there’s salvation for the company, it most likely lies in the back-end software and services it offers to large companies. Much of BlackBerry’s initial success was built on its ability to provide software and services that could run mobile email systems, and now, it also sells software that lets corporate IT managers tightly control passwords, apps, and other tools on iPhones and Android devices. This software, known first as BlackBerry Mobile Fusion and now BlackBerry Enterprise Service, faces stiff competition from Microsoft, Sybase, and others. BlackBerry’s secure messaging related services face similar competition, particularly as BlackBerry handset use declines.
Software and services accounted for just 29 percent of BlackBerry’s revenue in the most recent quarter, with just 3 percent coming from software. The rest came from hardware. The software and services mix is actually down from the same quarter last year, when 41 percent of revenue came from software and services.
But margins in software and services tend to be better than those in hardware, and BlackBerry has explicitly disclosed that its gross services margins are higher than its hardware margins. Furthermore, while BlackBerry’s image in the consumer sector is dorky and retro — something a paunchy, middle-aged office drone might wear in a holster attached to his pleated Dockers — its attention to speed and,especially, security gives the company lingering credibility with the technologists at large corporations.
Ken Dulaney, a vice president at technology research group Gartner, says BlackBerry could try and build a tidy business around managing mobile devices via BlackBerry Enterprise Service, or try and sell that business to a larger company like, say, IBM, which might hypothetically pay for BlackBerry’s “golden customer list,” as Dulaney puts it. But the analyst is quick to add that this is a small field relative to BlackBerry’s hardware business — perhaps a $500 million-a-year operation for a top player, to be generous, versus the $6.9 billion Blackberry made last year off hardware sales. Which means it would represent, at best, salvation for just a portion of BlackBerry Ltd.
“The company would have to be broken up,” Dulaney says. “Wall Street doesn’t make a good transition from one business model to another.”
As consolation, a software-and-services version of BlackBerry Ltd. could develop other modest businesses. For example, it could expand and generalize its business selling carriers network monitoring via its Network Operations Center. At the moment, carriers pay BlackBerry a few dollars per BlackBerry user to support the NOC, which monitors and routes various messaging operations. BlackBerry could hypothetically offer to support other types of network traffic through the same centers.
In a similar vein, BlackBerry could also try and make a business out of its links between mobile networks and the broader internet, links known as APNs. BlackBerry’s APNs may be able to offer content delivery networks cheaper, faster paths to mobile customers. “It’s a very efficient path; you get more bits per dollar,” says Dulaney.
While BlackBerry’s software and services business is small and shrinking, a pivot to focus on those areas would build on the company’s strengths rather than its weaknesses and potentially help it dominate a market central to none of its large rivals. It’s a gamble, but BlackBerry Ltd. doesn’t have much to lose right now.