What would Microsoft get by buying BlackBerry?

As soon as Microsoft revealed it is buying Nokia's phone business the suggestions started that maybe Microsoft should snap up BlackBerry as well. But would that even make sense?
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

As soon as Microsoft revealed it is snapping up Nokia's phone business, the suggestions started have that it should grab BlackBerry too.

On the face of it BlackBerry's enterprise credentials and loyal user base might make it the next target for Microsoft. And yet: BlackBerry has a strong ecosystem and great technology (even if it no longer has the sales to match them), but they're so different from the Microsoft ecosystem and architectures (and in other ways too similar) that it's hard for me to see what sense a tie up between Microsoft and BlackBerry would make. Here's  why.

Adding BlackBerry would create operating system overload

In Nokia, Microsoft acquired not just a smartphone maker, but also the team that makes Asha and feature phones like the Nokia 515. Microsoft is going to carry on making Asha phones that it can fill up with Microsoft services, in the hope that users will want a Windows Phone as their first smartphone. That's a whole new operating system (Series 40) Microsoft has to get up to speed on.

Even though the Nokia team stays in place to build the phones, there's the service integration for all the Microsoft services teams to care about. Microsoft might be able to handle that for one extra OS; it's a bit of a stretch to say it could do it for two at the same time. And while Microsoft once promised integration with Bing services for BlackBerry devices, those services never arrived.

If Microsoft were to buy BlackBerry, it would be getting BB7 and BB10 smartphones that compete directly with Windows Phone. It wouldn't make sense to sell those as well, so Microsoft would be buying BlackBerry so they could throw away the BlackBerry OS and have the BlackBerry team make Windows Phones. Microsoft would be getting the BlackBerry name, but that hasn't done as much to sell BlackBerry 10 devices as you might have expected.

There are few components of BlackBerry OS that would fit comfortably. To me, it seems the QNX OS and QT/Cascades framework are just too different, and the Torch browser is based on WebKit so you can't add any of it to Internet Explorer. The Balance security tool that divides the phone into 'home' and 'work' partitions relies on both QNX and BES; and Microsoft already has hardware encryption in Windows Phone.

A Qwerty Windows Phone handset?

While BlackBerry offers probably the best keyboard any mobile device has ever had, and there are still fans of physical keyboards, with the trend towards bigger and bigger phone screens, it's not clear how large the market for a Qwerty Windows Phone would be.

But even if it would sell well, it's not just a case of loading up a new OS onto BlackBerry hardware. The BlackBerry team would have to learn to build a phone using Windows Phone and the Qualcomm platform used for all Windows Phone hardware; it would be much faster to have the Nokia team make a Qwerty phone.

BlackBerry has some excellent developer tools, but they're for the BlackBerry architecture. Some of them are open source, like the Ripple mobile emulator which lets you test mobile web apps for PhoneGap and BlackBerry WebWorks, so if Microsoft wanted to support them it could just get involved in the open source project.

BBM versus Skype

BBM has worked so well because each phone was connecting to the BlackBerry backend network; the BBM service knew when a message had been delivered to another phone and when it had been read. It won't have quite as much information when it comes to iOS and Android — and it wouldn't get that information on Windows Phone either. Microsoft has already killed its own hugely popular Windows Live Messaging service in favour of Skype; if it bought BBM it would have the same problem all over again.

Exchange and Intune, and BES 10

The crown jewel for BlackBerry has always been the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which connects to each handset to control it. You can turn off the camera, block Facebook, stop people browsing the web and do whatever else an admin wants to lock the phone. BES 10 can manage Android and iPhone handsets as well as BlackBerrys, but Microsoft already has tools to manage those as well; basic ones in Exchange and rather better ones in Intune.

The third-party phone management tools in Intune and BES 10 are roughly comparable — because they're based on the APIs that Google and Apple make available. If you want to do more than that, you need to put an agent on the phone the way Good or MobileIron do.

What BlackBerry does have is the tools to put a secure partition on an iPhone or Android phone. Microsoft's approach is to offer cloud storage in SkyDrive and SkyDrive and SharePoint/SkyDrive Pro clients for Android and iOS. You will also be able to control documents using Azure Rights Management; you'll be able to send a document to someone with a Gmail account that they can open on their phone, but not change or forward it unless you've given them permissions.

Even BlackBerry has given up on BES as an email delivery system; with BES10, email goes to your BlackBerry over Microsoft's near-ubiquitous EAS protocol, wrapped in a secure tunnel. Obviously Exchange uses EAS. Email is encrypted on a BlackBerry handset; but when you connect a Windows Phone handset to Exchange, as long as you require a password on the phone your Exchange profile turns on device encryption too.

How about the secure backend network itself? Again, it's very tied to the BlackBerry design, so it would have to be repurposed. If Microsoft wanted something like that, it would probably be quicker and cheaper to build it. In fact, that's just one of the things Microsoft's Azure cloud service and the Azure Active Directory offers. Developers can already use Azure Mobile services to add cloud storage and push notification to iOS and Android apps and Web apps as well as Windows Store and Windows Phone apps.

The future of QNX

The kernel of BBOS is QNX, and BlackBerry also owns the company. Microsoft has Windows Embedded, which is a real-time operating system used in a lot of devices — including cars powered by the Microsoft Auto platform — like Ford with SYNC. But what QNX has is a real-time operating system certified to run nuclear power stations and already used in a huge range of cars, a distributed operating system that can treat a device in another country, or in the back seat of the car, as just part of its own file system. It's a huge asset for BlackBerry, and one it hasn't yet taken advantage of for connecting devices (beyond the screen sharing in the latest BBM).

It's possible to see Microsoft taking that QNX kernel and wrapping it in the Windows APIs as a next generation of the Windows Embedded and Auto platforms. That could create a new SYNC that could spread across cars, homes, and on to mobile devices with a future Windows blending NT and QNX in a cluster of virtual machines. But that's an option that would require much investment, and it's a question whether a Microsoft, in the process of its own massive reorganisation, would want to. Microsoft would probably prefer to scale Windows RT down to smaller devices and car dashboards.

How about the patents?

Sadly, BlackBerry's hefty patent portfolio would probably be the most attractive part of a deal for Microsoft. One analyst suggested they'd be worth $2 to 3bn if BlackBerry wanted to licence them — which would double the $3bn cash the company is sitting on — or as much as $5bn if someone bought them outright. Given the option, Microsoft tends to licence patents rather than buy them — and it's unlikely it would buy the whole company to get them.

But here's a thought — who has a great phone brand they can use any time after 2015 but no team to build phones? Maybe Nokia will snap up BlackBerry to have another bite at the smartphone market itself — to me it seems about as likely as Microsoft signing a cheque for the Canadian company to get its phone goodies.

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