BlackBerry: The End Game

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I still remember that day close to the year 2000 market top when I was first outfitted with a BlackBerry. It was a very liberating experience. I was no longer tethered to my desk for late office dinners, and traveling wasn't equivalent to being in dark territory.

In 2002, BlackBerry ( BBRY) (the company then called Research in Motion) transitioned to GSM (Global System for Mobile) and the email-only device became a phone. Color, apps and touchscreen followed, but some things took too long. The dramatic lead BlackBerry built up until 2007 rapidly started crashing down in 2009 and 2010.

In record time, Android has now grown to 70% market share, iOS 21%, and Microsoft ( MSFT) and BlackBerry now share part of the remaining 9% of the market. It's last call for BlackBerry. How will this end?

I think I know how. But before I tell you, there are two key observations I have made before that are necessary to repeat and expand upon now:

1. Why on Earth did BlackBerry launch a non-keyboard device first?

I have yet to hear of anyone waiting for a non-keyboard BlackBerry. If you were willing to sacrifice a keyboard in your smartphone experience, you most likely switched to iPhone, Android or Windows Phone a long time ago already.

If you are wondering why the reception to the non-keyboard BlackBerry is a bit lukewarm, you shouldn't. It really shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out.

One wonders if BlackBerry does any market research. If it had done any, and the market research weren't fake or otherwise deliberately falsified by some lazy pollster, the company would know what the rest of us know: 99% of BlackBerry users remain on the platform for one simple reason, the keyboard.

BlackBerry will never be remembered for the non-keyboard version. The keyboard version should be available in the U.S. by July or August, and it had better be good -- 75 million users are waiting for it. In contrast, I can't think of 75 thousand people waiting for the non-keyboard version.

2. BlackBerry can't break into the market using the traditional carrier-contract model.

There are some people, especially among developers and other adventurous influencers in places such as Silicon Valley, who would be interested in giving the all-new BB 10 platform a try. They would do this without getting rid of their existing Android or iPhone device -- either because they swap SIM cards with high frequency, or because they carry multiple devices simultaneously anyway.

These developers and influencers don't buy smartphones from operators, let alone enter into operator contracts. They buy unlocked iPhones for $649 and up directly from Apple ( AAPL) and Nexus devices for $299 and up directly from Google ( GOOG). They don't want to be tied to any one carrier as they frequently swap SIM cards.

These people will not buy a carrier-branded smartphone, and they certainly won't do so if it means entering into a two-year contract. As it stands, this will keep them from buying a BlackBerry 10 device until BlackBerry starts offering these devices directly, free from carrier influence, SIM locking and without any contract.

Yes, T-Mobile USA is now taking a positive step in this direction, but it's not the same as BlackBerry itself offering BB 10 devices for cash, unlocked and carrier-neutral in every way.

Why doesn't BlackBerry sell to these developers and influencers directly from its Web site, or even from Amazon ( AMZN), eBay ( EBAY) or Best Buy ( BBY)? Certainly the carriers should not feel threatened by this because these people will be using their network services anyway, just on a pre-paid SIM card basis.

The fact that BlackBerry does not sell unlocked carrier-neutral smartphones directly to developers and influencers is likely to cost it dearly in the market. It basically disqualifies it in places such as Silicon Valley. Very bad -- and totally unnecessary -- move. BlackBerry is trying to bypass the influencers and go straight for the masses. For a product like this, it has tended to be a failed strategy.

So what will happen to BlackBerry?

In brief, it will most likely be acquired. The mobile computing game is too big for the even bigger companies to allow BlackBerry to remain independent.

BlackBerry has many strong assets that several parties could exploit and integrate into their operations. For starters:

1. 75 million user base, including the valuable large enterprise users. Peanuts for Apple and Google, but material for Microsoft, Amazon, Nokia ( NOK), HP ( HPQ) and Samsung.

2. Patents and other intellectual property across several hardware and software technologies.

3. Server software that is proven, secure and cross-platform.

4. A leading automobile infotainment platform with QNX.

5. A strong operating system with what most people agree has a great user interface (BB 10).

Meanwhile, many companies are looking for any remaining empty chair around the table to beef up their positions in this very big game. In my opinion, the five most likely acquirers for BlackBerry are these:

1. Microsoft

With a similar incremental market share to BlackBerry, this is "last call" for Microsoft, too. By consolidating the #3 and #4 player, Microsoft might have a shot at reaching 10% of the market, making long-term survival at least plausible. Microsoft would have a particular interest in the server software, operating system, and the QNX automobile business.

2. Nokia

Nokia might perhaps not be able to acquire RIM alone. Perhaps it would have to split the purchase with Microsoft. Nokia takes the handset business and Microsoft takes the server and automobile business. If Microsoft could lend Dell ( DELL) $2 billion to go private, surely it could contribute a decimal point to secure itself the #3 spot in mobile computing.

3. HP

I don't see how you can stay in the consumer and enterprise PC business without also being in the handset business. It's one infinite shade of gray worth of a computing continuum. HP could "build its own" based on Android and Windows. However, if it wants to chart its own course, the only operating system that it could reasonably buy, that has market share, is BlackBerry. It also does not preclude HP from also doing Android and Windows -- and Chrome OS -- side by side with BlackBerry.

4. Samsung

Today dependent mostly on Android, it is planning to diversify into Tizen. However, this diversification may fail, and it's even more likely to fail in the U.S. than in emerging markets. Acquiring BlackBerry would bring Samsung one step closer to reducing its dependence on Android.

5. Amazon

Somewhat like Samsung, Amazon is dependent on Android. For a simple book reader, this may not matter as much, but once this device is meant to compete as a handheld computer, forking Android becomes a huge challenge. It would be natural for Amazon to have an interest in BlackBerry's market position and technology.

Who will NOT acquire BlackBerry? I see only two: Apple and Google. They simply wouldn't get away with it for anti-trust reasons. Both of these companies have to tread lightly, and BlackBerry isn't worth it for them given their size and resources.

In the end, BlackBerry is simply too attractive to be left alone. One of these five players is likely to acquire it, in my opinion.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG and AAPL and short MSFT.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.