What would Palm be worth today?

by Brenon Daly

We have to hand it to Palm Inc – the smartphone maker got out while the getting was (relatively) good. At least that’s one way to think about Palm’s decision to sell to Hewlett-Packard in April 2010 for $1.2bn. Hitting that bid looks even smarter in light of the beating that Research In Motion has taken since then, including Friday’s capitulation by many longtime shareholders. Consider this: since Palm became an HP business, RIM on its own has lost 80% of its market value. (Meanwhile, the Nasdaq is up slightly during that period.)

While some of RIM’s staggering decline can be traced back to the company’s own missteps around product delays, its fortunes also stand as a sort of proxy for the ‘non-hot’ (i.e., not Apple iOS- or Google Android-based) mobile market. And in that way, we shudder to think how Palm would have fared there if it remained a stand-alone smartphone vendor.

After all, Palm was barely holding on with a single-digit market share, not to mention the fact that it was teetering financially at the time of its sale. The unprofitable company was burning cash and, in the quarter the deal was going through, had just forecast that sales would fall off a cliff. In contrast, RIM is still profitable and growing. But you wouldn’t know that from the relative valuations of the firms. In its sale, Palm was able to fetch a not insignificantly higher valuation than RIM currently garners on the market.

RIM calls internationally

by Brenon Daly

As Research In Motion gets set to report fiscal first-quarter financial results later this afternoon, investors will be paying particularly close attention to the company’s international business, which has essentially provided most of the growth it has put up recently. Overseas sales have outstripped lackluster sales in RIM’s core markets of the US and Canada to the point where the home markets account for less than half of total sales.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that RIM’s acquisition strategy shares a similar cosmopolitan approach. We’ve already noted the company’s recent acceleration of M&A activity, with the smartphone maker announcing as many deals so far in 2011 as it did in all of 2010. And yet, that deal flow has increasingly been coming from overseas. RIM’s previous two acquisition targets – Scoreloop, a mobile gaming developer, and mobile device management vendor ubitexx – were both headquartered in Germany. Add in its December purchase of Swedish design firm The Astonishing Tribe, and fully three of RIM’s eight deals over the past year have been done overseas.

‘Acquisition in Motion’?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Instead of Research In Motion, maybe we should start calling the company ‘Acquisition In Motion.’ With Monday’s announcement of its purchase of ubitexx, the BlackBerry maker has now rung up nine acquisitions in just the past 13 months. That’s as many as the company had done, collectively, in the previous seven years. As we think about RIM’s accelerated M&A pace, we can’t help but wonder how much of that activity is essentially papering over weaknesses that were exposed by its two big smartphone rivals.

For instance, RIM needed some help on its core OS, so it went out about a year ago and spent $200m on QNX Software Systems. Then it realized that office productivity apps could stand to be displayed a bit more clearly on BlackBerry devices, so it reached for DataViz. And then there was the somewhat clunky user interface, which RIM hoped to polish with its purchase of The Astonishing Tribe in December for an estimated $125m. Those deals – along with the other half-dozen recent acquisitions – were seen as signs that RIM was getting the message that its phones just weren’t as appealing as the Apple iPhone or Google Android-powered devices.

The pickup of tiny German startup ubitexx pretty much makes that sentiment official. (That’s particularly true when we consider that the transaction came just two days after RIM reported that it will sell fewer phones than it predicted this quarter, and that the phones that do sell will be going cheaper than the company originally planned. The warning knocked RIM into a tailspin, and the stock has now shed one-third of its value over the past year.) Ubitexx allows RIM to bring mobile device management for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets to its BlackBerry Enterprise Server – a somewhat belated recognition that it isn’t just BlackBerry devices that are coming to the office these days

Navigating for relevance in a changing landscape

-Email Thomas Rasmussen

It’s becoming increasingly evident that once-dominant makers of personal navigation devices, such as Garmin and TomTom, have lost their way. They have seen billions of dollars in market capitalization erased as smartphone manufacturers have encroached on their sector, largely through M&A. Consider the most-recent example of this trend: Research in Motion’s acquisition of startup Dash Navigation earlier this month.

RIM’s buy is more of a catch-up move than anything else. Rival Nokia has already spent the last few years – and several billion dollars – acquiring and building a dominant presence in the location-based-services (LBS) market. And let’s not forget about the omnipresent Google. Starting with its tiny 2005 purchase of Where2, the search giant has quietly grown into a LBS powerhouse that we suspect keeps even the larger players up at night.

The Dash Navigation sale may well signal the start of some overdue consolidation, a trend we outlined last year. Specifically, we wonder about the continued independence of TeleNav, Telmap and Networks in Motion. TeleNav, for instance, is the exclusive mapping provider for the hyped Palm Pre through Sprint Navigation. But with the trend for open devices, we wonder how long that will be the case.

What’s the outlook for mobile payment startups?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

The consolidation in the mobile payment market that we outlined recently is still on. Startup Boku announced on Tuesday a $13m venture capital infusion in the form of what we understand was a $3m series A round followed quickly by a $10m series B round a little over a month later. Benchmark Capital led the latest round, with Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures also pitching in some cash. The money was used to acquire two competitors, Paymo and Mobillcash. We estimate that very little of the cash was used to buy the vendors. We understand that the purchase of Paymo, which raised a reported $5m itself, was primarily done in stock. The deals were largely a way for Boku to gain customers and technology, as well as expand its international reach. It’s increasingly important for mobile payment startups to do something to stand out among the dozens of rivals also trying to crack this market. What’s unusual about Boku is that this strategy is playing out so quickly. The company only incorporated in March.

The real question for Boku and other promising startups in the mobile payment space such as RFinity is what will ultimately happen to this hyped market. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars poured into startups, they haven’t been able to generate much revenue, certainly not to the level that would make them viable businesses at this point. We believe the best outcome for these firms is an exit to a larger strategic acquirer. An example of this that may well be in the offing is Obopay, which took an investment from Nokia a few months ago. We suspect that could be a ‘try before you buy’ arrangement for the Finnish mobile company. Research in Motion and others could look to use acquisitions to catch up, as well.

However, we wonder how long it will be before other smartphone providers, platforms and mobile operators do as Apple has done. Micro-transactions are a huge selling point for the new iPhone 3.0 update and, frankly, one of the few bright spots for the mobile payment sector. However, all transactions for iPhone applications are done through Apple itself, leaving companies such as Boku out in the cold. If other vendors – including RIM, Palm Inc, Google, Microsoft and even application platforms like Facebook – stay in-house to develop the technology, there isn’t much need to go shopping. That could well hurt the valuations of mobile payment startups, even those that survive this current period of consolidation.

North of the border disorder

Contact: Brenon Daly

The ‘storm’ caused by Research in Motion’s ‘bold’ play for Certicom looks likely to linger a bit longer. The Blackberry maker originally launched its unsolicited offer for Certicom a month ago, but the cryptography vendor has nixed it. (Certicom also lined up TD Securities to help it fend off the unwanted attention from the fellow Canadian company.) RIM’s bid, which values Certicom at some $52m, was originally slated to expire next week but has been extended through the end of the month.

With this unsolicited offer, RIM joins a growing list of big-name tech firms that have used this once-taboo M&A strategy. Over the past year, firms using unsolicited offers include Microsoft, EMC, Electronic Arts and Cadence Design Systems, among others. If RIM does manage to secure Certicom, it will mark the company’s second recent deal, after some two years out of the market.

Recent Research in Motion deals

Date Target Deal value Rationale
December 2008 Chalk Media $18.4m Mobile content
December 2008 (announced) Certicom $53.2m Encryption
November 2006 Epoch Integration Not disclosed Network management
March 2006 Ascendent Systems $14m* VoIP networking

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase *451 Group estimate