Research In Motion’s new BlackBerry 10 operating system has been delayed to, at the earliest, early 2013. That could prove to be a deathblow to the storied but struggling smartphone maker. RIM is going to miss out on the important holiday season with BlackBerry 10, and that could prove to be the weight that finally breaks the company’s back. In its dire straits, RIM has reportedly started to consider alternatives to BlackBerry 10 and its current strategy. Does that mean aligning itself with Microsoft and its Windows Phone platform? And how would such a move remake the smartphone landscape?
On June 29th, Reuters reported that RIM had been approached by Microsoft to use its Windows Phone platform on BlackBerry hardware. RIM, being a proud company that thinks it can pull itself out of its tailspin, declined. At least for now.
The future of RIM depends on BlackBerry 10. It has now been delayed several times, from the beginning of 2012 to the end of the year and now into 2013. BlackBerry 10 is built off of QNX, a platform that the company acquired in April 2010 and used to build the BlackBerry PlayBook that debuted in April 2011 (but was considered half-baked at the time with pertinent functionality not coming until February 2012). The longer that RIM delays BlackBerry 10 smartphones, the more untenable its situation becomes - leading to more layoffs, selling off parts of the company or worse.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is waiting with open arms.
RIM Does Have Assets
Outside of BlackBerry smartphones, RIM holds a variety of assets that are attractive to other companies. Microsoft, which still has a robust business in enterprise software, would love to get its hands on RIM’s proprietary network, which drives its secure messaging platform. Mobile carriers could also benefit from using the BlackBerry network - and former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie supposedly was in negotiations with carriers at the time he was ousted from his position and replaced with former COO Thorsten Heins. RIM also controls the BlackBerry Messenger platform on its network, one of the most robust and useful messaging services in the mobile industry. Finally, RIM also owns a treasure trove of mobile patents that could be auctioned off to raise cash.
The question that faces RIM right now is, can it get through 2012 on the strengths of its current assets and declining user base? The company would prefer to remain independent, but Heins started a “strategic review” in March to explore options.
Microsoft Has Money to Spend
This is where Microsoft comes in. The software giant has shown it is not afraid of spending money to move aggressively into the mobile market. It has partnered with Nokia to bring more Windows Phone devices to store shelves, subsidizing much of its partner's development and marketing costs. Microsoft also pays developers (and offers free services and development support) to create apps for Windows Phone. Microsoft’s open door and billions of dollars have to be an enticing life preserver for a company that has been floundering since the iPhone was released in 2007.
RIM (11.4%) and Microsoft (4.0%) control 15.4% of the smartphone market share in the United States as of the end of May 2012, according to comScore. If RIM were to abandon BlackBerry 10 to standardize on Windows Phone 8, the goal would be to capture about between 15%-20% of the mobile market for Windows Phone.
But Would the Marriage Work?
There is no guarantee that BlackBerry users would automatically move to a BlackBerry Windows Phone instead of fleeing to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. RIM’s smartphone market share is almost entirely built off of existing users that have older versions of the platform, such as BlackBerry OS 5, 6 or 7. It is also unclear whether RIM would abandon its older devices running BlackBerry 7 if it also started making devices with Windows Phone 8. RIM has said that until BlackBerry 10 comes out, it will continue to aggressively market BlackBerry 7 devices.
Also, if RIM were to abandon BlackBerry 10, it would likely take even longer to come out with new devices using Windows Phone 8 (or even Android). For example, Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership in February 2011. They didn't announce new Windows Phone devices until October 2011, and those phones didn't reach the U.S. until April 2012.
The one thing that Research In Motion cannot afford is another delay, no matter what avenue it decides to take. Partnering with Microsoft would buy it some breathing room, presumably with an influx of cash and support, but in the meantime, RIM’s assets would continue to decay and it would likely be forced into mass layoffs and restructuring.
Longer term, the real question is whether a combined Microsoft/RIM/Nokia beast could even challenge Apple and/or Google in the smartphone platform wars.
At this point, the answer is a resounding no. Some analysts believe that Microsoft can garner up to 15% of the smartphone market within the next couple of years, and attaching the BlackBerry name to Windows Phone devices might accelerate growth - but it's hard to see how the two together could get as big as iOS or Android.
It makes perfect sense for Microsoft to hover like a vulture over the dying BlackBerry platform. There are a lot of attributes to like, and the BlackBerry name is still well-recognized across the world.
On the other hand, does it make sense for RIM to partner with Microsoft? As with everything that surrounds the BlackBerry maker these days, that answer is not so clear-cut. If BlackBerry 10 is delayed again or if it proves to be a bust on the market, RIM will have no choice but to make wholesale changes to its business - and being subsumed by a larger competitor like Microsoft would be a better fate than going out of business entirely.