Is Microsoft planning to buy BlackBerry-maker RIM, or will it consummate the relationship it has with Nokia?
We continue along the lines of last week’s Monday Note kriegsspiel with the latest speculation: will Microsoft, at long last, buy RIM?
The idea has been kicked around for at least five years. Days after the iPhone’s introduction in January 2007, Seeking Alpha suggested that the Xbox maker ought to buy RIM in order to build an XPhone. In retrospect, this would have saved both companies a lot of grief.
It’s early 2007 and the BlackBerry maker is riding high. With its Microsoft Exchange integration; a solid Pim (personal information manager) that neatly combines mail, calendar, and contacts; and the secure BlackBerry Messenger network, the “CrackBerry” is rightly perceived as the best smartphone on the market.
I love my BlackBerry and once I manage to get a hosted Exchange account for the family, I show my ungeeky spouse the ease of over-the-air (OTA) synching between a PC and the BlackBerry. “No cable?” No cable. She promptly ditches her Palm device. One by one, our adult children follow suit. For a brief time, we are a BlackBerry family.
But the BlackBerry’s success blinds RIM executives. They don’t see – or refuse to believe – that the iPhone poses a threat to their dominance. A little later, Android comes on the scene. Apple and Google deploy technically superior software platforms that, by comparison, expose the BlackBerry’s weaker underpinnings. In 2010, RIM acquires the QNX operating system in an effort to rebuild its software foundations, but it’s too late. The company has lost market share and shareholders see RIM squander 75% of its market cap.
Now, imagine: on the heels of the iPhone introduction in 2007, Microsoft acquires RIM and quickly proceeds to do what they’ve only now accomplished with Windows Phone 7 – they ditch the past and build a modern system. This would have saved Microsoft a lot of time and RIM shareholders lots of money. Instead, Microsoft mocks the iPhone and brags that the venerable (to be polite) Windows Mobile will own 40% of the market by 2012.
Things don’t quite work as planned. Early in 2010, Microsoft wisely abandons Windows Mobile for the more modern Windows Phone 7 (a moniker that combines the Windows Everywhere obsession with a shameless attempt to make us believe the new smartphone OS is a “version” of the desktop Windows 7).
And things still keep not working as planned. WP 7 doesn’t get traction because handset makers are much more interested in Android’s flexibility and, particularly, their price. Android’s Free and Open pitch works wonders; the technology is sound and improves rapidly; OEMs see Microsoft as the old guard, stagnant, while Google is on the rise, a winner.
All the while, Nokia experiences their own kind of “domination blindness”. In 2007 Nokia is the world’s largest mobile phone maker, but they can’t see the technical shortcomings of their aging Symbian platform, or the futility of their attempts to “mobilise” Linux. iOS and Android devices quickly eat into Nokia’s market share and market cap (down 80% from its 2007 high).
In 2010, Stephen Elop, formerly a Microsoft exec, takes the helm and promptly states two brutal truths: this isn’t about platforms, we are in an ecosystem war; technically, we’ve been kidding ourselves. Nokia’s new CEO sees that the company’s system software efforts – new and improved versions of Symbian or Maemo/Moblin/Meego – won’t save the company.
Having removed the blinders, Elop looks for a competitive mobile OS. Android is quickly discarded with the usual explanations: we’d lose control of our destiny … not enough opportunities for differentiation … the threat of a race to the bottom might have entered the picture as well.
This leads Elop back into his former bosses’ arms. Microsoft and Nokia embark on a “special relationship” that involves technical collaboration and lots of money. It’ll be needed: by the end of 2011, WP 7 has less than 2% market share. Nokia’s just-announced Lumia smartphone is well received by critics, but will it demonstrate enough superior points to gain significant share against the Android-iOS duopoly? I’ll buy one as soon as possible in order to form an opinion.
The “MicroNokia” relationship isn’t without problems. Many Nokia fans are outraged: Elop sold out, Nokia’s MeeGo was unfairly maligned, the company has lost its independence … see Tomi Ahonen’s blog for more. (And “more” is the right word. Ahonen’s learned, analytical, and often rabid posts range between 4,000 and 10,000 words.)
The Nokia faithful have a point. In my venture investing profession, we call an arrangement such as the MicroNokia partnership “buying the company without paying the price”. Right now, Microsoft appears to control Nokia’s future since, at this stage, Nokia is as good as dead without WP 7.
But doesn’t that mean that Nokia also controls Microsoft’s smartphone future? “Statements of direction” aside, there are no notable WP 7 OEMs. (Samsung and HTC ship a few WP 7 phones, but their share is infinitesimal compared to their Android handsets.) With Android growing so fast, why would a smartphone maker commit to WP 7 while Nokia holds a privileged status on the platform?
Microsoft is making smart moves against Android by using their patent portfolio to force Android handset makers to pay (undisclosed) royalties. With LG as the latest licensee, Microsoft appears to have snared 70% of Android OEMs. The (serious) joke in the industry is that Microsoft makes more money from Android than from WP 7.
But success with patents doesn’t translate into more WP 7 OEMs, which leaves us to wonder: will Microsoft consummate the relationship and acquire Nokia, whether the entire corpus or, at least, the fecund (smartphone) bits? For years, Microsoft has claimed they’re all about choice, and when it comes to the PC, that’s true: businesses and consumers have a wide choice of PCs running Windows.
But their customers have no real choice when it comes to WP 7: it’s Nokia or … Nokia. They might as well tie the knot and call it what it is: Microsoft or Microsoft. It works wonders for Xbox and Kinect.
Going back to RIM, we hear it’s ”in play”, that it has hired investment bankers to “look at their strategic alternatives”. In English: it is looking for a buyer.
But who? Microsoft is otherwise engaged. So is Motorola. And forget Samsung.
With RIM’s market share dropping precipitously, and no sign of a rebound with spanking new models until the second half of 2012, who would want to risk billions in a market that’s controlled by competitors who manage to be both huge and fast-growing?
Sure, RIM is still in the black, but its cash reserves are dwindling: the Cash and cash equivalents line went from $2.7bn (£1.7bn) last February to $1.1bn in November 2001. What’s left will evaporate quickly if revenue and profits keep dropping, as they’re likely to do for the foreseeable future.
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