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Chen shrugs off IBM and Apple enterprise team-up

BlackBerry Chief Executive John Chen gestures as he speaks during the company's annual general meeting for shareholders in Waterloo June 19, 2014. BlackBerry Ltd reported a smaller-than-expected quarterly loss on Thursday as the smartphone company's cost cutting and other turnaround efforts started to pay off.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

If BlackBerry Ltd. chief executive John Chen is worried about IBM Ltd. and Apple Inc. combining their efforts in enterprise technology, he's not letting on.

In an interview with the Financial Times, he likened the team-up to when "two elephants start dancing," and suggested that his drive to transform the troubled Waterloo, Ont., handset maker is making the company nimble enough to compete with all comers.

He also hinted that BlackBerry is in talks with its own enterprise partners, leading some analysts to speculate on a number of possible dance partners.

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"A good enterprise partner for them might be an SAP or an Oracle," says Joe Compeau, a lecturer in information systems at the Ivey Business School. "Security is a little more important part of those systems, so BlackBerry would be a natural fit."

SAP and Oracle are increasingly moving to cloud-based services, and BlackBerry announced Wednesday that it would providing a cloud-hosted version of its BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 suite for the first time, meaning companies no longer need to maintain their own BES10 servers.

"I think SAP is probably the front of the pack, given Chen's legacy with them [the company purchased Sybase in 2010] … SAP is a known quantity to him," says independent technology analyst Carmi Levy.

In recent days, BlackBerry also announced the arrival of Marty Beard as its new chief operating officer; he worked with Mr. Chen at Sybase and has a history with Oracle as well.

"The place where BlackBerry has had a natural advantage is the health-care space, which is the fastest-growing enterprise sector," says Mr. Compeau. Although, he notes IBM is already aggressively expanding in health and its partnership with Apple may have been designed to expand that reach.

In April, BlackBerry announced a partnership with NantHealth, a provider of services for sharing clinical information and payment processing. A couple more deals like that, says Mr. Compeau, and BlackBerry could string together enough smaller players to compete in health care with IBM-Apple.

Another possible partnership might be with a large hardware concern. Mr. Levy suggested HP, which "like IBM … is a full-depth enterprise company" that could use some help in mobile. Possible buyout chatter involving South Korean giant Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Chinese technology company Lenovo Group Ltd. has also swirled.

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"For the longest time, a lot of people thought Microsoft was their natural partner, but that's not going to happen," says Mr. Compeau. Microsoft Corp. is in the middle of a program of layoffs, in part to untangle some of the awkward pieces of the Nokia phone business purchased under former CEO Steve Ballmer.

"What it needs [is] to find a company that can really accelerate its software agenda," says Mr. Levy, who believes million-strong app libraries may matter in the consumer market, but less so in enterprise. "It's about how many business-relevant solutions you can create."

When reached for comment, a BlackBerry spokesperson said no one was available to discuss Mr. Chen's strategic musings.

BlackBerry shares were up 5.31 per cent to $11.15 on Thursday, arresting what had been a three-day slide.

"Since Chen took over, we've begun to see some key pieces of what the long term strategy is," says Mr. Levy. "This is as major a transformation story as any we've ever seen in Canadian technology, but we're not quite finished yet."

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