What's been lost in the coverage of BlackBerry's appointment of a committee to seek strategic options is the notion that there is still real value in the company, with ongoing potential to hold onto market share in emerging markets and as a vehicle for content and the enterprise.
BlackBerry has clearly had its jam sandwiches eaten by Samsung Corp. and Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) smartphones in developed markets. But its handsets led in some emerging markets like Argentina, Venezuela, and parts of Asia and Africa, which may have helped to camouflage the company’s longer-term issues.
BlackBerry's market share has now started to erode globally, even in its home base, Canada. Behind this is the continued growth of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s Android, new local smartphone competitors in big markets like China, and the promise of a less expensive Apple handset.
The smartphone market is neither easy to penetrate nor sparsely populated: There are roughly a dozen major smartphone brands available in developed markets, but analysts say Apple and Samsung usurp more than 95 percent of the profits in smartphone handset sales.
Competitors like Sony Mobile Communications AB , High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498), LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) , Motorola Mobility LLC , and Chinese brands like ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) are left with crumbs. Imagine how these competitors try to plot new product road maps in such an environment.
Beyond the US and Europe, top-of-the-line smartphones are unaffordable for many consumers, so lower-priced "feature phones" or newer classes of "social phones" make up the bulk of the market. These mimic some, if not all, of the features of a top handset like the iPhone.
A key challenge for BlackBerry will be to play to this part of the market. Its BB10 is too costly, though, so the company must look to its new, lower-priced Q5, which comes with a traditional keyboard, as a vehicle to retain or increase share in emerging markets. One example of this is BlackBerry’s 8520, an "entry-level" smartphone released four years ago, which is still strong in some emerging markets.
The obstacles are daunting, though. For one, the user experience with content and traditional BlackBerry services like email may not please hard-core BlackBerry consumers: BlackBerry 10 sends data and email to the mobile operator network, rather than through BlackBerry’s servers. This can have huge business implications for BlackBerry -- the company may forgo the fee it charged to operators in the past for the use of its vaunted, secure network.
And BlackBerry's application development environment trails those of Apple and Android by a big margin. Its current app environment requires developers to build apps from scratch for the new BlackBerry operating system -- a real cost consideration for many companies that would prioritize building apps for Apple, Android, and perhaps even the Windows Phone 8 environment first.
BlackBerry definitely cannot afford to give up on content, either, so the app environment supporting its new devices will remain a priority. Over the last few years, it's been estimated that the company dismissed as many as 7,000 employees. But some say BlackBerry's teams working to develop apps have been untouched and remain intact with plans to grow.
And, more broadly, BlackBerry does have some elements working in its favor: The company has a large cash reserve of around $3 billion; it is debt-free; its enterprise network is strong and valuable; and the company sits on patents that some value at several billion dollars.
The coming months should tell how BlackBerry weaves these assets together, or breaks them apart. Either way, it needs to answer the considerable challenges in front of it. For now, I’m not jumping to count them out.
— Seth A. Schachner, Managing Director, Strat Americas