Dell and BlackBerry: a match made in heaven ?

Blackberry Raspberry

Silver Lake Partners, the private equity group steering PC giant Dell to a $25bn retreat from the stockmarket, may be trying to add smartphone maker BlackBerry to the portfolio to create a corporate computing powerhouse.

Executives from BlackBerry recently met Silver Lake to discuss "potential collaboration" in enterprise computing, according to Reuters, which also said BlackBerry's board was "increasingly coming around to the idea" that a private buyout would give the Canadian mobile group time to fix its problems away from the demands of the stock market.

Exactly the same rationale – of working in freedom from the market's quarterly demands for profit – has been used by founder Michael Dell to justify the buyout of Dell Computer, which has been delayed due to rows over voting. A new vote will be held on 12 September.

A combination could solve the two companies' separate problems at a stroke – remedying Dell's lack of any significant smartphone or tablet offering, and possibly helping overcome BlackBerry's dwindling consumer base and continued losses. It could also fill a gap for large businesses which need a single vendor for secure smartphones and PCs, one analyst has suggested.

Dell is struggling to cope as the PC market on which it made its name shrinks. In May it reported quarterly profits down 79% to $130m, with revenues down 2% to $14bn. Brian Gladden, Dell's chief financial officer, blamed poor uptake of Microsoft's new Windows 8 software, calling it "not necessarily the catalyst that we had hoped it would be" for PC sales, which overall have shrunk for the past five quarters.

BlackBerry's shares have fallen by more than 19% this year alone as its new Z10 and Q10 handsets have so far failed to enthrall buyers. From a peak of $84bn in 2008, the value of the company has shrunk to less than $5bn. According to the Reuters report, one source said there was "a change of tone on the board" at BlackBerry as it considers its position as its smartphone shipments and global subscriber base dwindle. The company has lost $212m over the past year and dropped out of the world's top five smartphone suppliers. Its short-term cash pile has remained at around $1.5bn.

Silver Lake has form as a technology matchmaker. In 2009 it bought the internet phone company Skype from eBay for $1.9bn; two years later it sold it to Microsoft for $8.9bn. It has also completed leveraged buyouts of semiconductor businesses and business phone systems.

BlackBerry has already had to shift its stance in the face of competition. Its BlackBerry Messenger, once exclusive and a strong selling point that kept consumers loyal, will be offered on iPhones and Android phones this year as it tries to compete with messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat.

But it is the corporate market where BlackBerry's most loyal – and potentially most valuable – customers are found. Its BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) provides robust encryption that is relied on by many financial institutions and businesses. And on Friday it had good news as the US defence department said it had approved the Z10 and Q10 software for use on its networks – potentially opening the door to huge, lucrative, long-term contracts with the US military.

Dell, meanwhile, is pulling back from the declining consumer PC market and has increasingly focused on government and enterprise customers.

Combining the two could produce benefits, but could it work? Benedict Evans, technology and telecoms analyst at Enders Analysis in London, said: "I'm not sure how being owned by Dell solves BlackBerry's problems. What does that combination do that isn't still challenged by the business environment?"

But he added there was still a crucial gap in the enterprise market: "Dell has backed out of mobile because there isn't scope for it to be in the smartphone and tablet market. But if together they can find the right corporate story – which neither has yet – it could work. The problem is that Microsoft has dropped the ball on mobile – that means it doesn't have a compelling mobile services story for enterprises."

Sources at large enterprises have told the Guardian that Microsoft's Windows Phone lacks certain security features that would let them deploy handsets running the software more widely - while BlackBerry and, more recently, Apple's iPhone can be used for broader rollouts. The iPhone and iPad have already won approval for use on Pentagon networks.

Asked about the reports of meetings with Silver Lake, a BlackBerry spokesperson said it "does not comment on rumour and speculation".

Sources close to Silver Lake denied the rumours.

Five IT glitches - and their solutions

Nokia: Finland's former ruler of mobile has been thrown into loss by the rise of Samsung and Apple in smartphones. It has bought a network infrastructure business from Siemens (Nokia Siemens Networks) to provide cash and profit.

Exit strategy: Microsoft is rumoured to have investigated the handset business. Selling that would leave the profitable NSN.

HTC: Taiwan's smartphone maker is warning of its first-ever losses this quarter and being steamrollered in smartphones by Samsung at the high end and Chinese rivals at the low end.

Exit strategy: get bought by Chinese handset maker or rising PC/smartphone group Lenovo. Politically uncomfortable.

Acer: After two loss-making quarters, the Taiwanese PC maker is trying to find alternative revenue sources to Microsoft's Windows, including Google's Chrome and Android tablets.

Exit strategy: merge with Taiwanese neighbour Asus and hope the combined PC and tablet market picks up.

AMD: US chipmaker, continually outdone by Intel, lost $1.2bn on revenues of $5.4bn (£3.4bn) last year. Its market valuation is just $2.8bn, but nobody would want it.

Exit strategy: rent its existing chip foundries to companies looking to make their own chips. Or convert them into Amazon warehouses – they're big enough.

Nintendo: Japanese games maker whose Wii had the wow factor in 2006 has seen sales of its new Wii U bend downwards. Smartphones and tablets now occupy more of the "casual gamers" it could count on.

Exit strategy: kill the Wii U, offer its signature Mario and other games on iPhones and iPads, and reap the benefits.

Powered by article was written by Charles Arthur, technology editor, for The Guardian on Friday 9th August 2013 19.12 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010