Skip to main content

It's now obvious that there is not going to be a bidding war for BlackBerry Ltd.. Or, for that matter, any bidding. A series of bad decisions in the midst of cutthroat competition pretty much ensures that Canada's last global tech champion will eventually be headed for the breakup yard. If this is indeed to be its sad fate, BlackBerry will find itself in good company. The tech graveyard is full of once-formidable companies that simply couldn't or wouldn't adapt to the tectonic shifts crushing their pioneering products and trashing their markets.

Most of the tombstones read: Tried to reboot too late and failed. Few people today recall such defunct luminaries as computer makers Digital Equipment Corp. and Wang Laboratories or software pioneer Lotus Development Corp. One of DEC's founders famously declared in 1977: "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." By 1998, what was left of the broken giant was acquired by Compaq, a well-known maker of personal computers. Four years later, Compaq itself fell into the welcoming arms of Hewlett-Packard, which nearly sank from the dead weight.

The oft-cited successful tech turnaround stories include Apple, of course, as well as Louis Gerstner's tenure restoring IBM to health. Mr. Gerstner used the computing giant's dwindling mainframe revenues to buy time, executing an astonishing restructuring and refocusing the company on one-stop solutions for corporate clients. IBM's market value rose from $29-billion (U.S.) in 1993 to roughly $168-billion in 2002.

But despite such exceptions, changing the people at the helm often doesn't stop the slide into oblivion, and in some cases, hastens it. Which could well end up as BlackBerry's epitaph, too. The verdict is still out on others, like HP, which brought in high-profile former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman in 2011 to run the show. Last May, Bloomberg put her at the top of its list of underachieving bosses, based on the dismal performance of the company's share price on her watch.

The fortunate ones that have fallen from the heights manage to limp on with scaled-down ambitions or become wards of the prevailing superpowers. This list includes some of BlackBerry's main competitors in times gone by. Motorola fell into the warm embrace of Google, largely for its patents. Battered by changing consumer tastes, Palm was acquired in 2010 by HP, whose track record speaks for itself. It subsequently wrote off the entire $1.2-billion (U.S.) purchase cost and is now peddling the mobile patents to try to recoup some of its losses. Nokia is selling its consumer handset business to Microsoft to focus on its much less consumer-sensitive networking and mapping businesses.

Every floundering tech company yearns to emerge as the next Apple, which completely remade itself in the late 1990s after it brought back founder Steve Jobs. In the dozen years he was gone, the computer maker flirted with bankruptcy and lost much of its good will with investors and consumers. But the post-Jobs Apple faces new challenges of its own in retaining market share and brand dominance. Under pressure from tough competitors like Samsung and Google, it must continue coming up with dazzling new products that will grab the attention and pocketbooks of the fickle, insatiable global consumer.

BlackBerry has already ceded that battle.