(MoneyWatch) It's been a rollercoaster of a week for Canadian smartphone manufacturer and one-time industry leader BlackBerry (BBRY). Last week, Reuters claimed an exclusive story that Blackberry would go private so it could address problems out of the glaring public eye. Now the word is that the company will explore strategic options, including a sale or operating as a joint venture.
The speculation is running at high speed, but BlackBerry's chances are not. After too many years of squandered opportunities, inefficient operations, broken promises, and reckless arrogance, it isn't clear whether anyone would waste a significant sum on buying the company the way HP (HPQ) did when it bought Palm -- ultimately for no good reason at all.
The twin questions of who would buy BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) and what went wrong at the company are intrinsically coupled. For the first question, it's tough to imagine why another company would acquire it, outside of a desire for patents that might or might not be useful in legal battles (figuring that BlackBerry had already licensed what was really needed to competitors) and access to developers, a so-called acqui-hire.
Desire for BlackBerry certainly could be tied in with buying market share. According to the most recent numbers from market researcher IDC, the company's smartphone operating system market share is 2.9 percent, significantly down year-over-year from 4.9 percent. To contrast that, Windows Phone went from 3.1 percent to 3.7 percent. Yes, BlackBerry makes Microsoft's (MSFT) mobile offering look like a rollicking success. At least, if you forget that Google's (GOOG) Android had a 79.3 percent share and Apple (AAPL), 13.2 percent.
As for acquiring technology and patents, take that in two steps. When HP acquired Palm, it was ostensibly for technology that would be incorporated into many other HP products. Maybe it was the PC manufacturer's malaise, but it could be that HP spiked the Palm efforts because there just wasn't enough to justify the investment of time.
Does BlackBerry really have anything that is unavailable any other way? You could argue that its subscription business is worth keeping, and that might be true, though the likely buyers have their own cloud service offerings and much larger audiences. As for patents, when Google bought Motorola, there was speculation that the latter's patent profile was the reason, as it would offer some great weapons in the ongoing legal thrashing in the mobile space. And yet, it's yet to be shown that what Google acquired will turn out to be all that effective in litigation.
Why does BlackBerry have comparatively little to offer? Because the company squandered its chances time and again. When the iPhone came out, leadership at the time dismissed the developments as inconsequential. It would take BlackBerry years to appreciate how much danger it was in. Leadership was smug about how it could catch up -- even though one drawn-out deadline after another fell to the wayside without the introduction of a viable product.
BlackBerry's strengths were really a loyal customer base, much of which has walked away, and secure and convenient communications and email. However, the technical features have not been enough to keep users from moving to something more effective. The Playbook tablet, which BlackBerry claimed would be a category killer, came out as a dud. While the company now talks about exploring strategic alternatives, its customers have been doing so for years now. It's not clear there's even enough cachet in the brand to be worth something for the name alone.