Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm.

RIM’s real problem could be finding someone to buy it

There is a very real possibility that BlackBerry maker Research In Motion will be on the block within a year or so. Unless it can pull off an unprecedented comeback and become relevant again in the high-end smartphone business, RIM could quickly find itself in the same seat as Palm was last year, trying to sell itself quickly to the highest bidder.

The trouble is that RIM’s last major innovations — real-time push messaging and a plastic QWERTY keyboard — are from last decade. Meanwhile, Apple is beating it in design and software, Google Android devices will beat it in price, and without much of a future to look forward to, RIM’s real customers — big corporations and wireless carriers — will look elsewhere.

But even as RIM’s market cap continues to shrink, finding a buyer could prove to be difficult. It’s still not cheap. And many of RIM’s likely suitors are either tied up with their own mobile projects, or simply won’t be interested in rebuilding RIM’s platforms for the future.

As Jefferies analyst Peter Misek notes today, at this point, Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Samsung, and HP all have other plans or would probably be better off building their own services to go after RIM’s customers. Salvaging RIM’s systems would take a long time and a lot of money. Cisco, a one-time potential buyer, is broken and is probably out of the running. Apple likely wouldn’t want anything more than RIM’s patents.

Might a foreign equipment company or carrier — operating in the markets where RIM is at least growing — be interested? If so, maybe not at a price that would make RIM shareholders happy.

So RIM is in a very tough spot. It is already behind, but any disruption now — a major management change or a second reset of its platform strategy, to Android or something — would hurt even more. Its only way forward seems to be this bet on QNX, its new phone platform, which it at least owns. But there’s little reason to be confident in RIM to deliver big on that, either. When’s the last time a BlackBerry actually impressed you with anything?

This is a company that has made several mistakes in the post-iPhone era, and is now simply being outplayed by its rivals in the markets that count.

But perhaps RIM’s biggest mistake was not selling itself to Microsoft a couple of years ago, when the BlackBerry still seemed viable and Windows Mobile was a dog. Since then, RIM hasn’t shown much improvement, and Microsoft has a new partner in Nokia and a platform that might actually work. And now, unless RIM can pull off the comeback of a lifetime, it may have a real problem finding a savior.

Related: If Palm were for sale today, the deal would probably be a lot more interesting