Earlier this month BlackBerry (formerly known as Research in Motion) took the biggest step yet toward its demise, formally putting itself up for sale. Pundits immediately began asking who would want to buy the company, which has seen its share of the U.S. cell phone market drop from 50 percent to a mere 3 percent in four short years.
Now those questions are becoming even more pointed, with analysts valuing the company on the whole at about $5 billion. That sounds like a lot, but $2.8 billion of that is in cash the company is sitting on. Patents and software account for another $1 billion of the total.
But the phone unit—which manufactures the BlackBerry hardware and is the source of most of the company’s revenues—actually has a negative value. There’s virtually zero interest among potential buyers for the company’s handsets, which are now widely seen as dated and boring and which don’t offer any features that don’t already exist in current hardware. Simply shutting down the phone division could cost an acquirer as much as $800 million.
The upshot of all of that is that BlackBerry will almost certainly be sold in pieces, and BlackBerry’s hardware as we know it will be going away. Soon.
So, old guard BlackBerry fans now have a difficult future ahead. If you’re one of them, chances are you’re already hedging your bets by looking into alternatives. But which one is right? If having a phone with a physical keyboard is on your must-have list, you will still have some options once you switch, primarily in the Android space. A quick spin through the major wireless carriers reveals a number of non-BlackBerry choices, including the Samsung Stratosphere, the Motorola Droid 4, and the Pantech Marauder (tagline: “When you’re ready to take it to the next level”), which all have a hard keyboard that slides out from beneath the screen in landscape mode. For those that always want their keyboard front and center, the ruggedized NEC Terrain offers more of a BlackBerry-like experience, with a keyboard right on the front of the device, at the bottom of the screen.
If you’re willing to give up the keyboard (out of your cold, dead hands, I know), you’ll have to decide whether you want to join the Android army or become one of Apple’s minions. If you’re planning to cling to BlackBerry services for as long as possible, BlackBerry Messenger is available for both platforms (in beta). Presumably it will ship before the company seals its own fate. Beyond that, you’ll want to get some face time with both OSes to make the tough decision. If email’s your thing, you’re going to hate the iPhone – even Apple loyalists decry its email handling system – but there are copious alternatives available for both iOS and Android that can dramatically improve the look and feel of email on either handset.
Whichever way you go, what you probably don’t want to do is jump from BlackBerry to Windows Phone… unless you want to have to have this discussion again about four years from now.
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Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.