BlackBerry was for a long time was the undisputed leader in enterprise smartphones, and enjoyed considerable success for a time in the consumer space too. Since then, it's faded dramatically: across five of Europe's biggest markets — Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany – BlackBerry now has a mere 2.2 percent market share, while its new BlackBerry 10-based handsets haven't been the breakthrough hits the company had hoped.
In the enterprise, BlackBerry has been undermined by the growth of the bring your own device culture — which has resulted in a huge influx of iPhones and Android devices into the business — while its attempt to break into the tablet market with the PlayBook had met with little success.
Now BlackBerry has revealed its board of directors has formed a "special committee" to explore strategic alternatives for the business which could include joint ventures, strategic partnerships or alliances, a sale of the company or what it calls "other possible transactions".
"Given the importance and strength of our technology, and the evolving industry and competitive landscape, we believe that now is the right time to explore strategic alternatives," Timothy Dattels, chairman of BlackBerry's special committee, said in a statement. However, the company noted that there is no certainty "that this exploration process will result in any transaction".
BlackBerry chief executive Thorsten Heins said that while the special committee looks at alternatives the company will continuing with its strategy of reducing costs, driving efficiency and accelerating the deployment of BES 10, "as well as driving adoption of BlackBerry 10 smartphones, launching the multi-platform BBM social messaging service, and pursuing mobile computing opportunities by leveraging the secure and reliable BlackBerry Global Data Network".
So what possible futures is BlackBerry now facing?
The company emphasised its desire to accelerate BlackBerry 10 deployments in its statement, and one way to achieve that would be to license out the operating system to other handset manufacturers in an effort to regain some critical mass.
After all, despite initial scepticism, BlackBerry 10 has met with largely positive reviews and is generally seen as well built and secure.
However, this route hasn't proved fruitful for the company in the past. BlackBerry has already been looking at licensing for a while without much to show for it: last year it engaged JP Morgan and RBC Capital Markets to help with a strategic review of how to leverage the BlackBerry platform through partnerships or licensing opportunities. And while BlackBerry 10 is a solid OS, there are a number of well-known alternatives — Android in particular — available to handset makers as well as a growing number of upstarts in form of Windows Phone, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch.
If it touted the OS around and saw no interest in the past, it's therefore unlikely that it would see any this time around, when its market share is even smaller.
Going private in itself can't fix the problems that BlackBerry has, but could give it the breathing space it needs.
Michael Dell's ongoing attempt to take Dell private has made the idea of tech companies going private suddenly fashionable again. The benefits are that it allows the owners to make the tough long term decisions needed to fix a company without having Wall Street rubbernecking and second guessing its every move.
BlackBerry has cash reserves and is far smaller that Dell so going private is a realistic option, assuming it can get a private equity firm interested. But that leaves the question of what would BlackBerry do to turn the business around even if it became a private company? If this is a route that BlackBerry pursues, the private equity firm that buys the company — and the direction they choose for it — will determine if it can return to something like health or be sold for scrap.
BlackBerry has been linked with a number of potential suitors over the past few years, from Lenovo to Amazon to Samsung and Microsoft. Some of these might be interested again, but there are a few others who might be tempted too: HP for example might consider taking another tilt at enterprise mobile, or even Dell.
However, there's no obvious candidate for a buyer these days. Many hardware makers have exited the mobile business in recent years and for those wanting to get into the business again or even for the first time, there are cheaper and easier ways to do so out there.
Another option may be to break the company up, by selling the various assets off — BlackBerry's thousands of mobile patents could be extremely attractive to Google or Apple, for example. It could even separate the hardware and software sides of the company, and concentrate on developing its MDM and enterprise software business — a business that still has a future whether its handsets sink or swim.
However, at least one analyst rates this as unlikely. Wells Fargo Securities senior analyst Maynard Um said in a research note: "With regard to asset sales, we believe BBRY would have the most value as a whole though there could be interest in various parts of the company — OS for the automotive or smartphone market, infrastructure for security, intellectual property, enterprise subscriber base, et al."
As BlackBerry's statement notes, "there can be no assurance that this exploration process will result in any transaction". It could be that after looking at all the options BlackBerry still decides to go it alone. It still has a strong brand, a reasonable enterprise customer base and some attractive technologies — it could be that a leaner BlackBerry can find a place for itself in the mobile ecosystem.
But, as Larry Dignan points out, it's going to be hard for BlackBerry to pretend that it will business as usual while all this goes on, and customers and staff will be unsettled and in limbo. The sooner the uncertainty is resolved — however it is resolved — the better.