Which carcass is worth more for Microsoft's vultures, RIM or Nokia?

Two former leaders of the smartphone market are circling the drain, and Microsoft is in a position to grab one or both of them, if it wants carrion for dinner.

Nokia and RIM, the two former leaders in the early smartphone market, are now basically at the end stage of their downward spirals. This is an opportunity for Microsoft, which wants to make some inroads in the smartphone market, assuming Microsoft it can play its cards right.

By buying either or both companies, Microsoft would risk alienating its current hardware partners. The good news is its biggest partner is Nokia, so no big deal there. Still, it can't exactly afford to irritate HTC and LG.

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Still, this presents Microsoft a golden opportunity to get some significant IP, and not all of it is in phones, either.

Nokia is now openly discussed as a takeover target because its market value has dropped below its book value. In other words, it would cost less to buy the company through its stock than it would to buy the company's physical assets.

If Nokia is looking to buy some time, it can sell off some non-smartphone assets. As I pointed out a year ago, it's sitting on two properties that would be of considerable value to Microsoft: the Qt development framework and the NAVTEQ mapping service. They would make great additions to Visual Studio and Bing Maps, respectively, and give Nokia some money to hang in there.

The question then is, for what? You buy time and sell off pieces of the company because you see a significant uptick coming. That's not happening. Even with the hype behind the Lumia 900, Windows Phone is not gathering traction, and I don't know if even Apollo (a.k.a. Windows Phone 8), Windows 8 and SmartGlass can reverse that.

Then there's RIM. This one-time $64 stock is now under $10. The latest bad news was that someone at Bloomberg took a close look at the balance sheet and noticed the inventory has ballooned by two-thirds, to more than $1 billion. Inventory accumulation like that, when there is nothing new coming, is a very bad sign. It means no one is buying your product any more.

RIM is working on BlackBerry 10, a significant update to its operating system, but no one I've spoken to thinks it will matter. Like every other industry, the smartphone sector is consolidating around a few players, and RIM is being pushed out. It was late to adopt the things people wanted and when it did them, it did a poor job. BlackBerry Storm, anyone?

The question is which firm is worth more. Both have their values, especially in the patent areas. In terms of just smartphones, Microsoft would probably gain more from RIM, because it could integrate BlackBerry Enterprise Server into its own server products. Nokia, though, is a much older player and probably has a lot more of a patent portfolio.

The question then becomes which is an easier purchase. Nokia is a 150-year-old storied company. The Finns may not be too keen to let it go to an American firm.

There is the distinct possibility Microsoft acquires both firms and keeps the best of both worlds for hardware. But where does that leave OEM partners like LG, HTC and ZTE?

It's questions like that that make me glad I can just raise them but don't have to answer them.

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