BlackBerry Gets Personal

Struggling Canadian handset maker BlackBerry is fighting tooth and nail to survive against dominant players like Apple and Google in the race for smartphone superiority.

BlackBerry has seen its market share erode significantly against the likes of Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems over the last several years, so much so that the very future of the one-time market leader is now up in the air. Take a look at just how far BlackBerry has fallen compared to Google and Apple in the last two and a half years.

Source: IDC.  

BlackBerry's smartphone market share has cratered a depressing 79% since the beginning of 2011, while Apple has seen marginal declines (but meaningful volume growth). After years of delay, BlackBerry's BB10 OS has floundered, while Google's Android has become the global norm for smartphone operating systems. Clearly, something just isn't working for BlackBerry.

A new approach
Earlier this week, BlackBerry took to the pages of 30 leading publications across nine countries, using the space to proclaim it won't go gently into that good night. BlackBerry hopes that by circumventing its usual advertising mediums it will be able to directly connect with consumers defecting from the platform en masse.

The ads came in the form of an open letter to consumers from "The BlackBerry Team." The overriding message was that BlackBerry is planning on being around for the foreseeable future, so it's still safe for consumers to purchase BlackBerry's products versus Apple- or Google-powered devices. The letter opens with the following passage:

To our valued customers, partners and fans,

You've no doubt seen the headlines about BlackBerry. You're probably wondering what they mean for you as one of the tens of millions of users who count on BlackBerry every single day.

We have one important message for you:

You can continue to count on BlackBerry. 

The letter goes on to highlight BlackBerry's $2.6 billion net cash as well as its recent cost-cutting measures intended to reduce BlackBerry's cost structure by 50% in order to, as it phrases it, "run a very efficient, customer-oriented organization."  

BlackBerry definitely makes a compelling case to consumers in the letter. The company highlights the platform's security and popularity with corporate customers, along with its growing presence in messaging with BBM. This is all well and good; the problem is that buying into BlackBerry's emotional appeal requires consumers and investors to overlook some very ugly truths, most notably that BlackBerry's opportunity to come back versus the effective mobile OS duopoly held by Apple and Google has likely already come and gone.

Don't be so sure
Although it has plenty of cash to tide it over for the next several quarters at a minimum, there are ample reasons to still look at BlackBerry skeptically.

Although it still held $2.6 billion in cash and equivalents at the end of last quarter, the company also burned through an estimated $500 million in Q2 alone. And although its cash burn should hopefully slow as the company reduces expenses, the prospect of BlackBerry facing a cash shortfall within the next six quarters certainly paints a pretty grim picture.

This line of thinking also overlooks other potential non-operational items that could increase BlackBerry's cash burn, such as the severance pay that BlackBerry will likely incur as it lays off 4,500 more employees over the coming months. There's also the ongoing BlackBerry buyout storyline that remains far from a sure thing. Three entities have emerged as potential acquirers for BlackBerry -- Fairfax Financial, Lenovo, and BlackBerry co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin. However, financing partners haven't been exactly chomping at the bit to own as unstable a business as BlackBerry, and it still seems the general consensus appears to be all  parties still have a myriad of major hurdles to overcome before either buyout bid has any real teeth.

This also isn't occurring in a vacuum. BlackBerry's two most staunch competitors -- Apple and Google -- have probably seen their respective hands strengthen as this storyline has evolved. Apple's most recent iPhones appear to be another smashing success by virtually every account. Google's Android continues to dominate emerging markets that have long favored BlackBerry.

Foolish bottom line
All this amounts to what's perhaps been the single greatest poison to BlackBerry's business -- uncertainty. Between BlackBerry's ongoing financial struggles and looming buyout, no one can fairly say what the company will look like in the next two years, let alone if it will be a going-concern. This lack of any real clarity provides a huge disincentive for consumers and corporate purchasing managers to align themselves with BlackBerry's platform, especially when other platforms like Apple's iOS and Google's Android present arguably more compelling alternatives.

So in the end, the hard truth might be that BlackBerry's recent appeal directly to consumers is probably falling on deaf ears in a world where Google and Apple are increasingly becoming the norm.

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