BlackBerry crumbles: the lessons for the IT industry

It was the least surprising news of the year. BlackBerry is up for sale, the Canadian mobile phone company finally admitting to the inevitability that everyone else recognised ages ago, with a formal review to determine the future of the firm.

Everything is up for grabs now – sale of all or parts of the business are likely. In my view, there are only two things BlackBerry has that will have any significant value – its software and its installed base. The hardware is probably dead, killed by a lack of consumer interest and by employee power in businesses who want to use their own smartphones at work.  

The company’s corporate customer base will attract the most interest. No other mobile provider has the same reach, thanks to BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Recent moves to extend the firm’s mobile device management capability to iOS and Android devices will offer someone a huge installed base to migrate to other devices.

If I was Microsoft, I would be delving into its cash-rich war chest and writing a cheque to buy that customer base today, before Samsung or one of the emerging Chinese handset makers like Huawei or ZTE get their hands on it.

Given BlackBerry’s status as the preferred secure mobile email device for governments – especially in the US – there will undoubtedly be a strong preference for a US company to be the buyer. Given the US aversion to Huawei in particular, it would be an interesting clash to watch if the Chinese telecoms firm put up the most cash. Just imagine Barack Obama’s emails being routed through China.

You would think that HP, IBM and Dell have got to be interested too. None have a significant mobile installed base, yet all have ambitions to integrate mobile devices into their infrastructure or cloud capabilities.

Of the three, IBM would have to be the favourite. HP has spent too much money on badly managed acquisitions, most pertinently the thorough failure of its $1.2bn acquisition of Palm in 2010, which led to the total collapse of the Palm business and brand.

Dell and BlackBerry together makes a lot of sense, but Dell is perhaps too distracted by its own ownership issues to take advantage.

But whoever buys whichever part of BlackBerry, the demise of the once-dominant corporate mobile supplier has lessons for every IT vendor about how the world has changed in recent years.

The market has diverged. To be a success in future, an IT supplier needs to be either a consumer-oriented business, with rapid product development and innovation, in tune with the digital revolution; or they need to focus on the boring back-end stuff, the storage, server, networks and cloud infrastructure elements that require reliability, security, dependability, resilience and manageability.

It will be increasingly difficult to do both, as IBM realised a decade ago when it sold its PC business to Lenovo. HP and Microsoft will both have to take a hard look at their businesses, as the challenge of trying to be both consumer and corporate becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it’s going to be harder to succeed as both. BlackBerry may be one of the biggest casualties of the changing IT market, but it won’t be the last.