A closer look at BlackBerry’s plight

Every unhappy company is unhappy in its own way. This week, BlackBerry's unhappiness seems to involve a need for reassurance. As we reported yesterday, the company wrote an open letter, and took out gigantic ads in major newspapers saying that "you can continue to count on BlackBerry."

Except you can't. Corporate IT managers can, to some extent, and that's the real audience for this ad. But the average smartphone user may get left behind as BlackBerry becomes a new kind of company. And the current management won't get to say whether or not that will happen.

The future is out of its hands

I've watched major technology acquisitions, and I've been part of major technology acquisitions, and one thing is certain: The current management simply doesn't have the power to say what BlackBerry will be doing in six months.

The company has moved from death-watch status to squabbling-over-the-pieces status. It might be bought by Prem Watsa's Fairfax Financial, who has said he wants to transition the company to being 100 per cent business-focused. It might be bought by founder Mike Lazaridis, who would presumably try to stay the current course. It might be bought by Cisco, Google, or SAP, all of whom would probably carve it up into parts.

So today's message from the anodyne "BlackBerry Team" (what, no names?) is a brave face put on by people who may be getting new orders from new bosses very soon. A sale or merger process paralyses a company – there's no way around it. Employees polish their CVs. Products stall, waiting to hear about new priorities. Uncertainty rules the day. Until you know who the new boss is, and what the new boss wants, any dealings with this company are a gamble.

Who can count on BlackBerry?

BlackBerry 10 is doomed. Bring-your-own-device rules the business smartphone world, for financial reasons and consumer preference reasons. Four out of the five potential buyers I listed above have no interest in selling BlackBerry 10 smartphones to consumers; only Lazaridis would be interested in trying to build a broadly popular smartphone OS.

Watsa seems to think there's a market for business-only devices, but we've only seen that with rugged or highly government-secure applications, nothing like the broad market BlackBerry used to have. I guess BlackBerry's handset division could become an Intermec (a maker of business handhelds), but there's no way it could support a vibrant app ecosystem without millions of consumers on the platform. It wouldn't be able to get critical mass.

But BlackBerry does have a future, in the three other points shown in the company’s ads this week: As a secure solution, as enterprise mobility management software, and as a mobile social network. If you rely on BlackBerry servers or BBM, I think you can stand strong. BlackBerry's server and device management solution is what four out of the five potential buyers really want (once again, who knows what Mike Lazaridis wants, other than to redeem his legacy)? They won't kill that golden goose.

BlackBerry's Enterprise Service 10 is a secure, genuinely manufacturer-neutral way to ensure that your business policies are being followed on work devices. Good Technology, MobileIron, and other companies are doing similar things, but BlackBerry is still the market leader. They'll continue to be.

BBM is a little bit slipperier, but even if a potential buyer decides to integrate it into another existing service, it'll be a soft landing. BBM is transitioning over to being a multi-platform messaging service. The worst outcome from the potential buyers would be if Google tried to shove everyone over to Google Hangouts. But even Google isn't that dumb, right?

Don't buy a BlackBerry

I can't recommend anyone to buy a BlackBerry handset right now. You're likely to have your next smartphone for two years. We don't know what BlackBerry will look like as a company in six months.

The current BlackBerry management can't acknowledge that their future is now out of their hands. When your company is on the block, that's just the truth of the matter. BlackBerry wants to reassure its customers – but the "BlackBerry Team" no longer has the power to do so.