UPDATED: Former Apple blight CEO John Sculley is also now reportedly mulling a bid for BlackBerry. See below how the "longtime BlackBerry fan" stacks up against Waterloo's other big-name suitors.
Call me sentimental, but I love BlackBerry and want the best for her. I’m like a lot of Canadians: protective of our mobile-tech starlet, even though she's coming off a two-year lurch that’d make bald Britney blush.
My admiration has survived embarrassments: the plummeting share price, warehouses full of unsold devices, “global creative director Alicia Keys,” and the panicky full-page ad claiming, “You can continue to count on us.”
BlackBerry’s got talents, but it’s clear avoiding trouble isn’t one. And now come hard decisions about the future. Analysts agree that if she’s going to survive in anything like her current shape, BlackBerry needs to find a corporate buyer. Marriage is the only way out of this mess.
The good news is there’s interest. Fairfax Financial broke the ice in September with a letter of intent proposing a US$4.7 billion takeover. And other big-name suitors—Google, Samsung, and Lenovo, among others—loiter in the wings, making calculations.
The bad news is BlackBerry is desperate. Which is why I’m concerned. Not all of these guys have the best intentions. Some of them are downright mean. I want BlackBerry to find true love, but I worry she might find something more, ahem, transactional.
Here's what I make of BlackBerry’s current crop of 10 suitors.
WHO? Sculley will forever be known as the guy who fired Steve Jobs from Apple, then ran the beloved company into the ground. But he’s also the guy who introduced the Pepsi Challenge to the world, so if you’re into putting on blindfolds and drinking unhealthy beverages until you’re sick, maybe he’s your guy. Or maybe not: He was forced out of Apple in 1993 after reportedly mulling over splitting the company into two. Heresy.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG What else do you really need to know? He fired Steve Jobs, wanted to break Apple up and probably sold cases and cases of Pepsi to underaged children in the slums of Central America. Would you want him marrying into your family?
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Oh please. Before Sculley became probably the most famous turncoat in corporate history, Jobs famously lured him from his role at Pepsi by asking him if he wanted to sell sugared water for the rest of his life. He says he’s a “long-time BlackBerry fan.” But so is my mom, and she’s no more qualified to win your hand than he would ever be. If you get into bed with Sculley, you may need to add more than a little fizz to your sugared water to get through the day.
WHO? Mike and Doug are the childhood friends who co-founded BlackBerry, in 1984. Doug retired in 2007; Mike (with co-CEO Jim Balsillie) left the corner office in disgrace in January 2012– and the company’s board in May 2013. The men went on to found Quantum Valley Investments, and recently served notice they’re investigating a bid. Together they own 8 per cent of BlackBerry’s outstanding shares.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG Too much nostalgia, too much emotion. Usually, the guy saying “Baby, can’t we give it another try” follows it up with, “I’ve changed.” No such murmurings from Mike or Doug. The company they built cannot succeed in its present form, and there’s no evidence either has a vision for the transformation.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Best let sleeping Dougs lie, BlackBerry. These guys are going to say sweet things about how they want to stabilize and rejuvenate you, love you back to health. You’ll want to believe them. We all will. But the only place nostalgia takes you is the Spanish restaurant where you glug sangria in preparation for bad decisions. The morning after will be hell. If you’re looking for a future, Mike and Doug should stay in your past.
2) Google: The one who thinks he’s too good for you (because he is)
WHO? Google, arguably the smartest company on the planet, is the tech Colossus that developed Android and owns a staggering 11 per cent of the global ad market. BlackBerry fans rejoiced when news broke it had reached out to Mountain View to gauge the web giant’s interest. It shouldn’t remind anyone of the time my sister wrote a letter to George Clooney, asking him out.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG Google’s out of BlackBerry’s league, and doesn’t need to play nice. Its buyout of Motorola – another storied handset maker of yore – shows it isn’t afraid of a little slash-and-burn to rekindle a relationship. Beyond BlackBerry’s patent portfolio – which might simplify life for Google’s lawyers – it isn’t clear the Canadian smartphone maker would bring anything to the relationship that Google hasn’t already purchased or developed.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Waterloo’s love will go unrequited, and that’s a good thing. A buyout would likely see Google absorb BlackBerry’s technology before tossing out whatever’s left. The wedding might play well in the society pages, but the marriage would be nasty, brutish, and short.
3) Lenovo: The one who frightens your father
WHO? The Chinese hardware giant, which bought IBM’s PC business in 2005, is familiar with big acquisitions. Like other PC makers, Lenovo is at risk from cooling global demand for traditional desktop and laptop computers. Unlike other PC makers, Lenovo has managed to grow market share and establish a beachhead in mobile devices. It’s managed to keep the iconic ThinkPad brand going, and has become a major supplier of tablet and mobile devices in China. BlackBerry would give the company significant additional credibility in the enterprise space.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG Your families don’t get along. (Ever see Romeo & Juliet?) Weeks ago, the Harper government nixed MTS’s plans to sell its Allstream unit to Egypt’s Accelero Capital, citing “unspecified national security concerns.” Does anyone expect the same government to give a Chinese vendor access to BlackBerry’s portfolio of leading edge encryption and networking technologies?
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Méi bànfǎ—no chance. Nothing Lenovo can do will get the Canadian government to see things its way. Even its feel-good experience buying IBM’s storied PC unit won’t sway Ottawa: PCs were commoditized boxes of undifferentiated technology, while BlackBerrys represent the keys to the country’s technological kingdom. Cry all you want; Daddy says no.
4) Cerberus Capital Management: The Mr. Perfect who’s probably a psychopath
WHO? Cerberus is a large, well-capitalized American investment firm with a track record for fixing distressed companies. The company reportedly signed a non-disclosure agreement with BlackBerry – a move that gives it open access to the company’s books.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG Whenever Cerberus pulls up, everyone swoons. It wears the corporate equivalent of perfect clothes, has perfect teeth and hair, and says all the right things at exactly the right time. But Cerberus’s game is a mercenary one: to get what it wants, quickly, and get out. Heed the lesson of Chrysler, BlackBerry. Remember the automaker’s
disastrous financial condition, which preceded its government bailout, which preceded its sale to Fiat on bargain basement terms? It all happened on Cerberus’s watch.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Hell, no. Cerberus is named for the mythical three-headed hound that guards the entrance to the River Styx. Its job? To keep damned souls in hell. Life’s been hellish enough lately, wouldn’t you say? There are nicer boys out there to make promises to.
WHO? On paper, the German enterprise software giant looks like a perfect fit, more so since its successful acquisition and integration of mobile data specialist Sybase. SAP’s enterprise services offerings could benefit from BlackBerry’s global network and secure messaging technologies, and its software smarts would dovetail nicely with BlackBerry’s engineering-driven business model, giving the Waterloo company a powerful value-added layer as it moves past its legacy roots as a mobile hardware company.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG You have different fundamental values. SAP may speak the same corporate language as BlackBerry, but integrating these two cultures—one dominated by hardware, the other by software—would be perilous. Also, SAP’s software-driven business model leaves little room for handsets, which reduces the likelihood of BlackBerry emerging whole from an acquisition.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Nein. Accountants love this match because the two seem to have so much in common. Which is why we ignore accountants when they talk about love. BlackBerry’s German CEO notwithstanding, the companies have no chemistry. BlackBerry + SAP is a relationship that should stay where it’s best—on paper.
6) Cisco: The widower whose kids are starting to worry
WHO? Although most consumers barely know the brand, Cisco for years owned most of the market for the core infrastructure used to build the Internet. Its routers, switches and other network equipment are used to shuttle data across the globe, and the company set the early mark for others in the sector.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG He can’t get his head around new-fangled things. Although a stalwart of the Internet’s back end, Cisco’s front-end performance has been dismal. It stumbled as attention shifted from broadband to wireless and doddered as newer generations of wireless networks displaced once-fundamental technologies. Worse, the company’s attempts to extend into the consumer space have been consistent failures – Umi, Flip, or Cius, anyone? – and reflect a crippling inability to understand what ordinary people want and need.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? While BlackBerry and Cisco might enjoy commiserating about their consumer tech failures, misery loving company is a poor blueprint for success in marriage. Stay away from the grandfather, BlackBerry. You need someone younger.
7) Samsung: The Mr. Perfect with one teensy problem
WHO? Samsung is the uber-successful Korean conglomerate that’s stolen the global smartphone and tablet crown from Apple. A trendsetter in mobile devices, the company introduces new features, like gesture-controlled scrolling and curved screens, at a breakneck pace. An acquisition could put BlackBerry within striking distance of the coolness it once had. It could also give Samsung much-needed credibility in the enterprise space, a market that Galaxy-branded devices still haven’t clinched. There’s just one problem.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG He’s married. Samsung has invested significantly in Google’s Android technology and culture, and it’s been an extremely successful relationship. It’s lovely to daydream about what might have been, BlackBerry, if only you’d met when you were younger, but the days of a fruitful union have probably passed.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Doubtful. BlackBerry may express hope for the benefits a Samsung marriage could bring, but as Oscar Wilde reminds us, the basis of optimism is always sheer terror. Don’t spend long waiting by the phone, BlackBerry. He’s with his family now.
8) Amazon: The one who’ll make you feel dirty
WHO? Amazon owns online retail, and has used its tablets as a loss-leading gateway into its web-based world. It lost money on every first-generation Kindle Fire it sold, but more than made up for it by making it easier for tablet-using customers to buy more stuff. It’s a natural extension from tablets to smartphones, and BlackBerry is certainly ripe for that kind of picking.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG He only wants to get down to business, and he never brings flowers. If Amazon and BlackBerry hook up, expect all that corporate/enterprise goodness to evaporate as the Canadian company is reshaped into a simple hardware supplier to the mothership. Amazon is all about brutal efficiency, economies of scale, and fascistic supply chain control. Investors may like the improved organization, but when it comes to replacing existing BlackBerry devices, they’ll be dealing with a company that no longer speaks the language of its most loyal customers.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? If by love you mean utility. No romance here. BlackBerry will become a tiny front-end component of Amazon’s online retail infrastructure as its storied enterprise competencies wither in the vine. Do it only if you have to, BlackBerry. It’s not the happy ending Canadians want for you.
9) Prem Watsa: The meh one your parents always liked
WHO? Watsa, a savvy investor known for taking the long view, is often compared to Warren Buffett. He is the CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings, which holds more BlackBerry shares (10 per cent) than anyone else. A onetime BlackBerry board member, Watsa has long supported the company’s technology and its current CEO, Thorsten Heins.
RELATIONSHIP RED FLAG He doesn’t speak your language. Fairfax specializes in financial services. It doesn’t have the mobile or tech bona fides to pull off an acquisition like BlackBerry, which means its yet-unseen consortium of partners had better contain some geeks.
BLACKBERRY LOVE MATCH? Love is a strong word. Watsa’s half-hearted letter of intent wasn’t an official offer. And Fairfax’s revelation that it hadn’t yet lined up deep-pocketed partners sent many investors into panic-sell mode. Those negatives aside, BlackBerry, Fairfax seems genuinely to care about your Canadianness, and grasps what made you great in the first place. Prem Watsa doesn’t get you hot and panting, but he’s respectable and won’t leave you standing at the altar. My advice? Take a deep breath and say yes. You could do a lot worse.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org