Like its once-popular smartphones, BlackBerry Ltd.'s arsenal of patents is at risk of being eclipsed by the fast-changing wireless industry.
BlackBerry's patent portfolio is one of the most diverse in the technology industry and is possibly the company's most valuable asset. Sifting through its thousands of patents reveals a host of innovations in all areas of mobile technology, ranging from user interfaces to battery efficiency and data compression. Some 80 per cent of BlackBerry's patents are the result of the company's own research efforts.
But investors hoping that the patent trove will spark a bidding frenzy similar to the one for Nortel's patents two years ago may be disappointed. Many of BlackBerry's patents relate to technology that was popular when the company itself ruled the smartphone market five years ago. Since that time, the consumer smartphone has changed drastically, and BlackBerry's patents, in turn, may have lost a significant portion of their worth.
"There may be a lot of value [to BlackBerry's patents] from an engineering standpoint, but if it's not what people want to buy, it doesn't matter," said patent expert Florian Mueller.
"If the private equity people believe their big payoff is mostly going to come from patents ... it could be a lot harder for them to get their money back than they think."
BlackBerry currently has about 7,500 patents and applications, of which roughly 4,200 have been granted, according to Ottawa-based intellectual property firm Chipworks.
BlackBerry filed relatively few patents until 2004, when the company found itself in a protracted court case launched by patent firm NTP Inc. From that point on, the company roughly tripled the number of patent applications it filed every year, from about 100 to more than 300. That number began to decline again in 2011, as the company's troubles mounted.
"I wouldn't call it as high quality as Nortel," said Julia Elvidge, president of Chipworks, referring to Nortel's 6,000 patents, which were sold to a consortium that included BlackBerry for $4.5-billion in 2011. "But it's still a solid portfolio that's pretty diverse in nature."
Perhaps the most valuable patents in BlackBerry's arsenal relate to security – a field in which the company still stands head and shoulders ahead of its competitors. Roughly 2,500 BlackBerry patents relate to secure messaging and digital transactions, according to Ms. Elvidge – patents that could be used by a buyer to form the cornerstone of a secure enterprise technology company, or sold to a host of potential bidders in fields ranging from e-mail encryption to electronic health care records.
But not all BlackBerry's patents are as valuable as they used to be. For example, the company's group of patents related to physical keyboards may have been hugely valuable six years ago, when such devices were the industry norm. In recent years, as most consumers have opted for touchscreen devices, the patents may have become much less useful to other manufacturers.
In a sum-of-the-parts valuation, senior Bernstein Research analyst Pierre Ferragu estimates the value of BlackBerry's portfolio at between $800-million and $1.5-billion, depending on how many of the patents relate to previous generations of wireless technology. For many analysts, who often attribute zero value to some other parts of BlackBerry's business, patents represent the most lucrative portion of the company.
Ultimately, the value of the patent portfolio will be determined only by what a potential buyer is willing to pay – and, so far, there has been little interest from the same companies who clamoured for a piece of Nortel's arsenal just two years ago.
"In the case of the BlackBerry portfolio, the price is going to look completely different if Google and Apple want to keep the patents out of each other's hands," said patent expert Mr. Mueller. "But I don't see any indication that people in the industry feel the need to buy those patents."
The exact market value of BlackBerry's patents is also difficult to predict in part because the company has largely used its patents for defensive purposes – to ward off litigation – rather than to actively pursue other firms in court. Analysts can gauge the value of patents by how much other companies are willing to pay in license fees or litigation settlements – but in BlackBerry's case, almost no such information exists.
"BlackBerry never went out to sue someone," Mr. Mueller said. "This portfolio is untested in litigation."