Why would IBM (or anyone else) want to buy RIM's enterprise services division?

Credit: RIM CEO Thorsten Heins (image credit: RIM)

Business Week reported late last week that IBM might be interested in acquiring RIM's enterprise services division. According to the report, IBM made an informal approach to RIM, but no firm decision was made and there are no on-going discussions at this point. Microsoft 

If IBM were to buy RIM's enterprise services position, it's unlikely that the company would be interested in taking on RIM's smartphone and tablet manufacturing divisions (to date no company has shown major interest in buying RIM's hardware assets) or RIM's various mobile operating systems, which include the traditional BlackBerry OS, the OS for RIM's PlayBook tablet, and the unfinished BlackBerry 10 OS that RIM plans to ship next year.

RIM's biggest asset at this point is its enterprise infrastructure. That infrastructure includes the secure email services that were once the cornerstone of RIM's smartphone empire. It also includes the secure BlackBerry Messenger system that allows instant, encrypted messaging among BlackBerry devices, and RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), which offers IT departments more than 500 security policies that can be enforced on managed BlackBerry devices.

Berenberg Bank analysts said the enterprise services division could be valued at between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion depending on the mix of services included in the transaction.

That raises an interesting question, which services would IBM - or any other company - find the useful or valuable?

BES is a dying technology, but it might have some appeal for IBM. Although it offers an impressive array of security features, those features are inextricably linked to the current BlackBerry platform. Without the BlackBerry OS and hardware, BES is isn't worth much.

RIM introduced a product for companies manage Android and iOS devices in April, but BlackBerry Mobile Fusion only covers the "inherent" management capabilites of those platforms -- a far cry from the detailed management policies available for BlackBerry devices.

But even if RIM could offer this broad range of policies for iOS and Android devices, would anybody want them?

Most companies are accepting the influx of consumer-oriented devices like Apple's iPhone and the range of Android devices on the market. Rather than locking down these devices at the most basic hardware and OS levels as BES offers with BlackBerry devices, most IT leaders are taking an app and data management approach that focuses on securing business data on the device without heavy-handed device restrictions. Even if IBM could port BES to Android, the overall game of mobile management has evolved beyond BES.

That doesn't mean BES would be worthless to IBM. Big Blue offers its own mobile management solution. IBM could leverage BES as part of its mobile management portfolio and keep supporting the platform for companies that are active BlackBerry customers, even if RIM itself goes belly up. That could be a short-term proposition to support such companies until they transition to other mobile platforms and an alternate mobile management solution like the one IBM already offers.

Beyond BES, the secure messaging infrastructure is something that IBM could adapt into a long-term product. Very few companies offer that kind of secure and instant messaging. Apple only unveiled a similar solution in iOS 5 last fall and Mountain Lion this summer and the company's iMessage system is Apple-only. IBM could adapt BlackBerry messaging to multiple platforms including Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. That could be a serious commodity and it could net IBM a fair share of the mobile messaging and mobile management pie - after all if you're getting your secure messaging from one vendor, it makes sense to at least consider that vendor for mobile management as well.

Ultimately, RIM is still fighting for life. It's doubtful that the company will return to its glory days and even its survival is far from assured, but the company will try to fend off would be buyers until it makes one last stand around BlackBerry 10 next year.  

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