Microsoft-RIM partnership prelude to more?

Bing to become default search engine for BlackBerry browsers and maps

Microsoft may have embarked upon a major smartphone partnership with Nokia, but clearly Redmond has its own agenda in the mobile market.

CEO Steve Ballmer turned up at the BlackBerry World conference on Tuesday -- he didn't just turn up, he delivered a keynote address -- to announce that Microsoft will be the default search provider for mobile devices powered by Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS.

Computerworld's Matt Hamblin writes:

"We're going to invest uniquely into the BlackBerry platform," Ballmer said, according to several live bloggers. "Bing will become the default search provider in the browser and maps" on BlackBerry devices ..."I've never been more excited about where our future is going."

Hamblin writes that the "news shocked several live bloggers and analysts who tweeted the news from the keynote event in Orlando, Fla. Ballmer appeared onstage at about 9:30 a.m. ET and surprised many of the 6,000 in attendance."

The announcement of a Microsoft-RIM partnership, so soon after Microsoft announced a long-term smartphone deal with Nokia, understandably might be a surprise -- in the moment.

But when you step back and look at the mobile OS market, there are two dominant players -- Google and Apple. Everyone else is falling rapidly (RIM and Nokia) or just not in the game (Microsoft).

(Also see: Cisco-RIM talk underscores Microsoft's missed opportunity)

The also-rans and laggards in any market must always keep their options open, simply as a survival measure. That's what Microsoft and Yahoo did when they formed a search partnership: Combining was the only way they saw to stay remotely competitive with Google.

And that's what Microsoft is doing here by investing in the BlackBerry OS. The question is, will this lead to further collaboration -- or something more -- down the road? Why would Ballmer, during a keynote in front of a BlackBerry crowd, say, "I've never been more excited about where our future is going"?

Last Thursday, after RIM's announcement of disappointing BlackBerry sales caused shares to plunge and called into question the company's future, I wrote:

This might sound crazy, but I wouldn't rule out Microsoft buying RIM. Here's why: I believe the Microsoft-Nokia partnership is destined for big problems, for both corporate culture and execution reasons. But since Nokia has much more at stake in the partnership (unfortunately for Stephen Elop) than Microsoft, for which the mobile market is but one line of business, Redmond conceivably could lose interest in the deal.

But with a market cap of $224 billion, Microsoft could easily absorb RIM. It would save on WP7 development costs, plus it already has a strong presence in the corporate market, where RIM has excelled (though that's also eroding). Maybe Microsoft could craft a two-tiered mobile strategy, selling higher-priced BlackBerrys along with cheaper WP7s.

It sounds a little less crazy today.

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