Research In Motion has lost the smartphone war. With its global market share at 7 per cent, down from 21 per cent in 2009, RIM has ceded the very market it created to Apple's iOS and Google's Android smartphone platforms. Yet RIM still boasts 75 million subscribers, $18-billion in annual revenues, relationships with 110 carriers, customers in business and government, numerous patents and a global presence – all of which could be more valuable in the hands of a company that needs a stronger mobile presence, such as Facebook .
Still fighting, RIM has reorganized and is planning to launch a new software operating system called Blackberry 10. Sadly, it's all too little, too late. RIM waited too long before taking these competitive threats seriously. In the fast-paced and brutally competitive smartphone game, RIM missed fundamental shifts in the end-user market as Apple redefined what consumers expect from a smartphone.
RIM simply has lost too much momentum with consumers, carriers, enterprises and developers to recover.
Selling the company seems the best strategy now. There is much at stake: RIM employs thousands, and investors may still extract value. While RIM appears willing to consider bids, it appears (so far) that there are few takers for the handset business. But RIM's real worth does not reside in the handsets or Blackberry 10; the company's hidden value lies in its global network and lucrative services. RIM gets a small share of wireless revenues from each subscriber, which could be highly valuable in the hands of the right acquirer. One such buyer could be Facebook.
It's well known that Facebook has a serious mobile problem; 40 per cent of its 900 million users are accessing Facebook through a mobile device, but Facebook struggles to monetize them. Further, Apple and Google control the two dominant smartphone platforms and can tightly integrate their own social networking and other applications, giving them priority over Facebook, which is just another mobile app. This threatens Facebook's growth and dominance as the world shifts away from the PC.
By opening up RIM's network to Android, Apple and Windows-based smartphones, Facebook can deliver ubiquitous, instantaneous mobile messaging and social networking (chat, sharing content, etc.) with RIM's trademark addictive "crackberry" messaging experience. RIM's network also offers Facebook a much-needed distribution platform for smartphone apps and content, atop which it could begin to innovate and sell new services.
Consumers are shunning e-mail and SMS in favour of chat, Skype and mobile messaging. Because of RIM's network efficiency, a Facebook-enabled smartphone would be affordable, allowing for cheap "Facebook" data plans. According to comScore, a typical consumer spends 441 minutes a month on Facebook mobile, and in my household with two teenagers, Facebook consumes most of our mobile data bills.
RIM's presence in 175 countries, where low-priced Blackberry messaging plans have driven its popularity, would also help secure Facebook's mobile global objectives. It would be challenging for Apple or Google to replicate the interconnection of RIM's network to its worldwide carrier partners.
RIM also addresses another big Facebook problem, illustrated by its struggling stock price post-IPO: growing its revenues and earnings to justify its lofty valuation. In the last 12 months, RIM's services business generated $4.1-billion in revenue and $3.3-billion in gross profit, which would double Facebook's current profits. RIM investors expect these services and profits to decline, but under Facebook, with its powerful global reach, installed base, brand and software innovations, these mobile services could prosper, boosting Facebook's share price. Facebook would also get talent and patents to help fight the wireless war.
RIM management may not yet be ready to accept this tough reality, as it implies shutting down or selling off the handset business. But the handset business is dying anyway. Given the stigma over RIM's recent poor performance, some Facebook investors will balk. Yet RIM's current low valuation makes the economics of buying it for the services business alone more attractive. Facebook, in fact, may not be the only acquirer candidate under this scenario, which may expand the number of potential bidders, to the benefit of RIM shareholders.
While it would be sad to see a Canadian business icon go this way, this approach still allows RIM to save jobs and live on as part of the smartphone industry – before it's too late.
Mike Abramsky is principal, Red Team Global, providing strategic advisory services.