It didn’t take long. On day one of last year’s BlackBerry World, at about 9:30am EST, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stepped to the podium and addressed the crowd.
“We’re going to invest uniquely into the BlackBerry platform” Ballmer said, adding “I’ve never been more excited about where our future is.”
Ballmer was talking about the decision to make Microsoft’s Bing search engine the default search provider in the BlackBerry browser. Today, with RIM’s BlackBerry World 2012 in Orlando just weeks away, some are wondering if the same scenario might be replayed with something more substantive on the line.
Last year’s surprise appearance was, of course, not the first time Microsoft has been connected with the struggling Waterloo tech giant. Microsoft has had a presence in the Kitchener-Waterloo “Tech Triangle” for more than a decade. The company’s ties to the area were underscored in October 2005 when, during a visit to Waterloo, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said, “Most years, we hire more students out of Waterloo than any university in the world…” Just three years earlier, the University of Waterloo received $2.4 million in funding from Microsoft.
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Rumours of a RIM-Microsoft alliance are nothing new. The Guardian’s Jean-Louis Gassée recently pointed out that in January of 2007, “days after the iPhone was released..” some were calling on XBox maker Microsoft to partner with RIM on an “XPhone”.
But today, the players at the table are different. Steve Ballmer, if inclined to make a play for RIM, would no longer be talking to the tandem of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. He’d be talking to new CEO Thorsten Heins who, after RIM’s fiscal 2012 conference call, said he would be interested in strategic opportunities, including partnerships and joint ventures.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the Microsoft-RIM story is back on the front burner again. Today, a small item from Benzinga’s M&A Chatter section has sparked a fresh round of speculation that the Redmond, Washington company will invest $3.5-billion into Research in Motion. Does Microsoft want RIM’s access to government contracts? Its surprisingly successful BlackBerry Messenger application? Its dominance in certain key emerging markets, such as Indonesia? According to this particular rumour, the reason is patents. After AOL agreed to sell 800 patents to Microsoft on Monday for (US) $1.06 billion, Microsoft is apparently after a deal on RIM’s intellectual property. Increasingly, defensive patent aggregation is seen as a necessary guard against IP litigation.
An investment into RIM by Microsoft to try and challenge Apple’s dominance in the mobile device space would bring one story full circle. On August 6, 1997, amid “gasps of disbelief and loud boos from the audience of thousands of Mac users and software developers”. Microsoft founder Bill Gates bailed out struggling Apple with a $150 million dollar investment. The rumoured deal-clincher came when Apple agreed to drop long-standing patent infringement lawsuits against Microsoft.