Ever since Thorsten Heins took over as the CEO of BlackBerry, there have been two big stated goals. The first was to make a comeback in smartphones, on the back of BlackBerry 10. The second was to be a clear leader in mobile computing, not just smartphones. Mobile computing includes machine to machine (M2M) communication.
The BlackBerry 10 smartphone comeback is something the company is quite publicly working on now, and the evidence of success is not particularly compelling yet. But their work on M2M is less discussed in public. This is probably because it’s a more complex topic, it’s earlier on its path towards commercialization, and it’s just not as interesting for most tech writers to pontificate on.
Within M2M, we’re probably all most familiar with the automotive industry. Thorsten has brought cars up on stage before during keynotes, and we all know that QNX has a deep rooting in the auto industry. Then we’ve heard a bit about things like building access management, and how a BlackBerry powered device could authorize the right people to secure areas of an office. I’m sure there is much more to the industry than those two examples.
There is another, smaller, Canadian company who can legitimately claim to be the leader in M2M computing, at least when it comes to hardware. And that company is Sierra Wireless (or just Sierra, as most people shorten it).
Sierra has the best possible customer list in the business, and it’s worth pointing out that they are the #1 player in deploying wireless modules into automobiles
Sierra has a market value of just over $400 million, less than one tenth of BlackBerry’s $4.6 billion valuation. Sierra is slightly profitable today, having sold off its AirCard business (a brand most people know) to California’s NETGEAR. Sierra is now a pure play in the M2M market, selling wireless modules, gateways, routers, and perhaps most important, bundled cloud services to a wide variety of customers. Sierra has the best possible customer list in the business, and it’s worth pointing out that they are the #1 player in deploying wireless modules into automobiles. Their modules are used by Toyota, BMW, Ford, Chrysler, PSA Peugot Citroën, Mercedes and Fiat. Even Tesla’s model S electric car uses Sierra Wireless to connect to the AT&T network in the US market.
Sierra has also been working really hard to build up a cloud-based application services platform called AirVantage. So when I think about what BlackBerry wants to do in M2M, and I look at the huge customer base that Sierra already has (and its growing cloud-hosted software capabilities), I can’t help but wonder why BlackBerry hasn’t already bought this market-leading Canadian company. I’m a shareholder of Sierra, so perhaps I’m biased ... but I admit it so it’s OK.
Growing by acquisition is a common strategy. BlackBerry has used acquisition to fill holes in its technology base, thereby giving it more growth potential. Sierra Wireless has largely consolidated the M2M hardware market through multiple acquisitions (AirLink, AirPrime, Wavecom, Sagemcom). For all the wonderful things I can say about Sierra, it seems they’re having a tough time to really grow their cloud-based application services. Maybe it’s an area that requires big effort for many years to bear fruit. I don’t know. But I do think that under the ownership and global brand power of BlackBerry, things could probably move along faster.
BlackBerry brings strength in enterprise. So many large companies in many vertical markets are already using BES. The cloud has been something BlackBerry has talked about for a very long time, but I am convinced they have not executed well here. Perhaps owning Sierra Wireless (and the good cloud-based app work they’ve done) would be a positive?
Maybe it would take $500 million to make a deal happen between the two companies. It’s not like BlackBerry is in a position to part with that much cash right now, but a mix of stock and cash could get the job done.
I’d like to see it happen, but I’m curious what others who know the M2M business think.