A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services unit could result in a viable, ongoing business for Windows Phone. (You can read that post here.) This week brought news about BlackBerry, the other company vying to become a third mobile ecosystem, aside from iOS and Android, and it wasn’t good. BlackBerry pre-announced a second quarter loss of nearly $1 billion. This came on the heals of a $646 million loss in its fiscal 2013, prompting a fresh round of scary headlines and terminal prognostications. But media headlines are written to grab attention, not to necessarily to inform, and though I expect to see lots of them centered on a “BlackBerry is running out of options” theme, the reality is more nuanced and, in my opinion, not nearly so dire.
As I see it, BlackBerry is merely running out of one of its options: selling hardware. Though the brand likely is a net positive in some parts of the world – Latin America and Asia Pacific in particular – it does seem reasonable to conclude that its relaunch of new handsets based on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system have failed and are not likely to recover. Given how strong BlackBerry’s devices business once was and how until recently, it dominated enterprise mobile communications, I can understand why some media and analysts have gotten caught up in the bloodsport that is commenting on the company’s performance and prospects.
If BlackBerry cannot compete in the devices business, though, it has a very clear way forward as a software-only company. BlackBerry’s Enterprise Service, which at a simplistic level describes its secure, primarily corporate email offering, is its killer app, just as iTunes is for Apple. BlackBerry phones have always been the end user’s chassis to which the company attached this end-to-end communications service. If that chassis goes away, companies still will need email and messaging that they can deploy without worrying about compromising corporate data, including confidential exchanges, intellectual property, financials, and anything else that employees might swap via email or instant message.
Without having to commit R&D, distribution, sales and marketing resources to a devices business, BlackBerry could, in theory, focus entirely on software and services and build its killer app for any software platform, including those attached to devices that are out-selling BlackBerry’s phones today. The company has already started down this path with its recent decision to make its BlackBerry Messenger service, which currently has 60 million users, available for iOS and Android. Its software and services business already generates meaningful revenue; in its fiscal 2013, which ended on March 2 of this year, BlackBerry made more than $4 billion in software and services. While that’s down slightly from fiscal 2012, it’s still up compared to fiscal 2011. By comparison, since fiscal 2011, its devices revenues have declined by 58 percent.
Of course, BlackBerry has to choose to abandon its devices business, and as recently as last month its CEO was quoted as saying that devices remained core to the company’s strategy. That doesn’t seem tenable anymore without a deep pocketed partner that thus far has not emerged. A move to strictly software and services centered on its email and messaging solutions, with licensing income or perhaps even a sale of its patent portfolio to boost its cash position, would certainly still require painful layoffs and enduring press stories that will cast the decision as a form of surrender. But it would give the company viability and perhaps even a chance at a new form of dominance, albeit a platform agnostic one.