Why licensing may be BlackBerry’s last chance at triumph

With BlackBerry 10, the first major iteration of the QNX-based BlackBerry platform, the firm formerly known as Research In Motion has promised to make a triumphant return to consumers’ minds, hearts and pockets. And it has certainly made a solid effort, producing a modern operating system that early hands-on reviews have revealed to be chockfull of impressive features.

But if it wants to gain back any significant ground from the likes of Apple and Samsung, a surer bet for BlackBerry may be to shift its emphasis from developing its own hardware to licensing its software and technology to existing market giants, a move that would attract both consumers and developers in droves.

BlackBerry has managed to retain a subscriber base of some 80 million people, but as customers’ needs shift and market trends evolve, it is at risk of losing even the most loyal of users to competitors like iOS and Android. Despite BlackBerry 10’s strengths, its limited handsets and dearth of apps will stand in the way of the mass adoption of the platform. Those, however, are problems that can be solved by licensing the operating system to other manufacturers, a proposition that would allow BlackBerry to have diverse hardware offerings and enough market share and support to attract more developers.

The company’s current situation and dour market position are in large part the result of attempting, and then failing, to satisfy consumers while trying to keep up with the needs of enterprise clients. Though the new BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10 are both consumer-ready devices, BlackBerry has proved unable to create products with enough cool factor to keep up with competitors.

Even at the peak of its popularity, it was BlackBerry’s software – not its hardware – that drove its success. Today, aside from new entertainment content via BlackBerry World, most of the BlackBerry 10 features RIM is touting are business-targeted - BlackBerry Balance and a revamped BlackBerry Enterprise Service, for instance, are unlikely to prompt the average consumer to line up outside of Carphone Warehouse.

By allowing other manufacturers, such as HTC, Samsung or Huawei to adopt its platform, BlackBerry would be able to focus on developing its OS and attendant functionalities while allowing its partners to cater to customers’ hardware needs. Putting its platform on devices built by other companies would allow BlackBerry to expand its reach through its prospective hardware partners’ existing channels, while allowing it to step outside of the confines of the enterprise market without sullying its brand.

Along those lines, partnering with reputable firms would also be a good move for boosting BlackBerry’s reputation among developers. One of the platform’s current weaknesses is a serious lack of apps, with major programs like Kindle and WhatsApp noticeably absent. A wealth of apps would help give BlackBerry a real chance at competing against iOS and Android. Meanwhile, developers would be more likely to create applications for BlackBerry if they knew that it would be an investment worth making, that they would be able to reach significant audiences, and that the BlackBerry ecosystem will not collapse – all of which are assurances that licensing could provide.

With an extensive patent portfolio reported to be worth billions of dollars and with a firm grip on the enterprise mobile market, BlackBerry licensing out its software and technology could prove to be a boon for the company in diversifying its revenue channels. While Microsoft holds a chunk of the enterprise sector and Apple and Samsung sell all manner of electronics, BlackBerry is strictly in the mobile business. Licensing not only its operating system but also its proprietary technologies could give it an additional income stream as it attempts to reinvent itself.

In recent months, rumours about a prospective BlackBerry acquisition and/or licensing scheme have gone into overdrive. In fact, when CEO Thorsten Heins hinted at either of those options in a recent interview, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

But as the company’s stock fluctuates, the real test of BlackBerry’s success will be the media and public’s response over the next few months – enthusiasm from press and prospective customers, or lack thereof, could easily determine the narrative of BlackBerry’s future. A positive buzz could be something it can parlay into business opportunities. A flop – whether real or perceived – will be hard to recover from.