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TECHNOLOGY

BlackBerry to Go Private at $4.7B to Save Business. Next: Pigs Fly
 

Private equity firm Fairfax Financial Holdings will buy BlackBerry for $4.7 billion. But it will need something closer to a miracle to bring the company back.

Blackberry Q10

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After all the pain of watching BlackBerry in recent years--the sputtering rhetoric, the bungled operations, the tortured posturing, the doomed strategies manufactured and then tossed aside as the company proved incapable of bringing them into reality--the story has taken yet another major step to its utter finality. Private equity group Fairfax Financial Holdings will take BlackBerry private.

Fourth Time Is a Charm?

A lifeline? No, more like a chance to hit the air a fourth time before sinking below the surface forever. Because unless there is some great strategy that management has kept hidden, this move will only delay the inevitable, not prevent it. The announcement on Friday of an impending $1 billion loss and the layoff of 40 percent of the employees was no fluke.

It's brutally hard to admit that something you've built over decades is going down the tubes, particularly when your company is public and you have unhappy shareholders. That's been the case at BlackBerry for years. Originally the company, when it was RIM, had a lock on the high-end of the smartphone market. Aimed at business professionals, it provided superior electronic communications and security. Now? It's an afterthought with market share that even trails the Windows Phone.

There's something to be said for remaining determined. Being in love with bringing out badly flawed products and then improving them over time--occasionally to finally conquer a market--has been Microsoft's stock in trade. But then, Microsoft has had a cash-printing machine that lets it keep hammering away, which is how it finally got Windows Phone to more than 3 percent market share.

BlackBerry never had that type of money, and the funds it did have it squandered by running late, delivering under expectations, and exhibiting a level of corporate arrogance that quickly outpaced its accomplishments. Every quarter, fewer people ask for BlackBerry phones. Fewer people care about the brand.

No Long-Term Strategy

Many, including me, have said that BlackBerry had to break up into pieces or find a buyer of the whole company, because it clearly had blown every opportunity for a comeback. At first glance, going private might seem to be a variation on the same theme. After all, someone is buying the company, right?

True, it does get the shareholders out from under. However look at the survival of the company itself, and going private is a pipe dream. As Jan Dawson, chief telecoms analyst at market analyst firm Ovum, was quoted in a statement from the company:

Normally, companies are taken private in order to give a long-term strategy time to payoff without the hassles of short-term investor scrutiny. But BlackBerry's key problem for the last couple of years has been the lack of such a long-term strategy. It simply hasn't articulated a way to rebuild its business as its device sales drop precipitously.

It's a perfect statement of the problem. For years, the long-term strategy consisted first of denial that the iPhone was a threat. Next, it was wishful thinking of how the next product, whether the fiasco PlayBook or underwhelming BB10 operating system, would save the day. Finally, the working mantra for anyone there with sense or options, including the two former co-CEOs, was something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Run away!"

Going Private Won't Help

There's nothing left. The value of patents? After all, plenty of companies have spent enormous amounts to gain access to big patent portfolios, and BlackBerry was pretty early into the smartphone game, which means a larger chance that it could have some fundamental and broad patents that would either let a patent troll sue everyone in sight or a big company better protect itself against legal challenge.

It's a nice thought, not not realistic. The value of the patent portfolio was one of the features touted when HP bought Palm. But there apparently was little value in it. HP dropped everything to do with Palm after flushing $1.2 billion down a large drain. Google said that one of the reasons for buying Motorola Mobility was to acquire the patent portfolio. However, companies in the mobile space have done a lot of cross-licensing to gain access to important technology and prevent others from suing them. Many of the most powerful patents in the Motorola line-up have been licensed, leaving Google with relatively little on that front. In other words, spend lots of money on a patent portfolio and you could find that cross-licensing has left few big sticks left in the arsenal you thought you were buying.

There is the enterprise software and services business, but that always rested on the device business. Companies wanted the capabilities that services like mobile device management offered because they had many BlackBerry users as employees. When people have walked away from the platform, who needs the services when they don't support iOS or Android?

And, as Dawson noted, the BlackBerry device business depended on scale for profitability. As that scale advances to the range of a micrometer, the chances for making money there are gone.

This is a comatose business that should have had life support removed some time ago, when there was still the ability to return more value to shareholders and to retain some dignity. Maybe Fairfax Financial has some secret strategy, like agreements to sell off BlackBerry in parts and more than recoup the purchase cost. But at this point, that seems increasingly unlikely. One possible winner: business case study writers, who love a good example of exactly what not to do time and time again.

IMAGE: Blackberry
Last updated: Sep 23, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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