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What happens to BlackBerry users if RIM tanks?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Mobile device vendor Research in Motion (RIMM) announced that it would see an operating loss for the first quarter and management has hired two investment banks -- J.P. Morgan and RBC Capital -- to "evaluate the relative merits and feasibility of various financial strategies." Typically, such banks are brought in to explore a potential sale of assets or an entire company.

That RIM might pursue a sale isn't surprising. The company has been falling behind for years as users abandoned their Blackberries for more innovative products, namely iPhones and Android smartphones. Meanwhile, RIM management and the board insisted that they knew best what to do. But pressure from major investors in the face of financial disaster has apparently taken its toll, both in continuing management turnover and the real prospect that RIM could soon no longer exist as a separate company. That just leaves three big questions to be answered: Who would actually buy the company, what would happen to the shareholders, and what would happen to BlackBerry users?

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RIM faces a problem similar to the one Palm experienced in the period between its major financial problems and the point at which HP (HPQ) finally bought it. The very condition that makes a sale an imperative also discourages potential buyers from expressing interest. Sales are down. New product releases are still far off, given the speed at which the mobile market moves. RIM's PlayBook tablet, a product that the company once hailed as a savior, flopped. Tens of millions of customers use data services RIM provides, but while an asset, that is hardly reason enough to acquire the company.

Given the vehemence with which patent wars are raging in the mobile industry, a Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Samsung, or other wealthy powerhouse could purchase RIM solely for its patents. Some group of them might chip in to ensure that none of them could be encumbered, much as happened with Nortel's patent portfolio.

Although RIM has been largely ineffective in the market over the last few years, it does have good technology, including the QNX operating system that it bought in 2010 and which forms the basis of the BlackBerry 10 operating system. Some companies might be willing to pay for QNX -- for example Samsung has discussed its interest in having its own operating system to distinguish itself from competitors rather than running Google's Android like so many others. And Facebook (FB) is apparently interested in building its own smartphone to improve its chances on the mobile front, so the manufacturing and industry expertise would be handy.

But any interest in acquiring RIM is likely to be limited, and that's bad news for shareholders because the company essentially is running a fire sale. Potential buyers know RIM is on the ropes and can drive a hard bargain, reducing the payout to investors

As for customers, things are tricky. Even if RIM was moved from the face of the Earth, BlackBerry handsets will continue to work. However, the email, messaging, and other data services that users users like for seamless operation and that corporations like for strong security would shut down unless some other company acquired them and kept them running. Otherwise, some of the biggest draws for customers would cease to be.