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Peering into the crystal ball on RIM Add to ...

As 2011 mercifully winds down for Research In Motion Ltd., investor and analyst sentiment about the company’s future has degenerated from pessimistic to downright existential.

This week, the BlackBerry maker’s outlook became even more difficult to decipher, as the stock price jumped on rumours that activist investor Carl Icahn had taken an interest – and a substantial ownership stake – in the company. Three days later, the stock had given back the rumour-inspired gains, and was back near its lowest point since 2005. Meanwhile, an exodus continues out of the company’s senior ranks. This week’s departure was RIM’s head of developer relations, Tyler Lessard, who joins a list that includes two senior marketing chiefs and the man who led the effort on the PlayBook tablet.

With so much turmoil at the company, investors are trying to gauge the prospects for a shakeup. Here are four pressing questions about Canada’s most important technology firm:

What would an activist investor want?

Mr. Icahn is well-known for picking beleaguered companies, including those in the technology industry, such as RIM competitor Motorola, and trying to extract value from them. Besides the possibility of trying to find a buyer for the company, Mr. Icahn and other activist investors could push for changes on the company’s board of directors. (A Canadian money-management firm, Northwest & Ethical Investments LP, made a proposal to change RIM’s board structure this summer. As a compromise, the company has established a task force to study the issue and report back early next year.)

Any changes at the board would likely have the effect of taking some control away from RIM’s co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, who currently also serve as co-chairs.

An activist shareholder could also push directly for management change, something several RIM critics have called for as the company’s market share has dropped this year. The co-CEOs will likely fight such pressure.

Activist investors also have other avenues when it comes to trying to boost RIM’s stock price. Earlier this year, RBC analyst Mike Abramsky floated the idea of breaking the company in two, arguing that “splitting RIM into network and handset businesses may target opportunities and unlock significant shareholder value.” That’s a direction Mr. Icahn could choose to pursue: he was instrumental in pushing Motorola to split into two last year.

Is RIM an acquisition target?

Rumours of RIM’s acquisition by a global tech giant have been around for years. But they grew deafening this summer after Google bid $12.5-billion (U.S.) for Motorola Mobility. The move was widely seen as a play for Motorola’s massive patent portfolio, leaving observers to wonder whether someone might go after RIM for the same reason.

However, there are plenty of hurdles. For one thing, even with RIM’s sagging stock price, a purchase bid could still run anywhere from $14-billion to $20-billion, which would be a huge investment, even though many tech companies are currently flush with cash. In addition, Microsoft Corp., the company seen by many as RIM’s most likely acquirer, has bet billions on a partnership with Nokia, and may well move to turn that partnership into an acquisition, rather than place a different bet on RIM.

A potential buyer would also almost certainly have to jump through numerous regulatory hoops. Following Nortel’s implosion, RIM stands as Canada’s brightest technology star, and the centre of the country’s drive for more innovation. Since all of its potential suitors are foreign, Ottawa will ask a lot of questions about any potential bid, and would have the right to review any deal under the Investment Canada Act.

Where will the next big jolt to the stock price come from?

With new – and often negative – developments coming almost daily, it’s difficult to tell what RIM’s stock price will do next. There have been several short-term surges in the past few weeks, first on news that the new line of BlackBerrys is selling well, and then on rumours Mr. Icahn may be buying shares. But the stock also plunged after the last quarterly earnings report earlier this month.

Barring surprises, the next big move may well come in mid-October, when the company hosts its North American developer conference. At the conference, it will unveil new improvements to the PlayBook tablet, among other things. Investors will also look for any signs of a delay in the launch of new smart phones due out early next year, running on a brand new operating system. RIM has bet its future on those devices, and any delay in getting them to market has the potential to hammer the share price.

Could this be the end of the PlayBook tablet?

Compared with what analysts had expected, PlayBook tablet sales last quarter were dismal – just 200,000 of the devices were shipped. And after one of RIM’s hardware partners began cutting its work force this month, some analysts speculated RIM was essentially pulling the plug on its tablet, less than a year after its launch. RIM has called such speculation “pure fiction.”

Practically, RIM would have a very hard time completely abandoning the PlayBook so soon after its launch. For one thing, the company has promised consumers and developers a massive software update next month that will allow them to do things such as run e-mail and calendar functions directly on the PlayBook, without having to tether it to a BlackBerry.

RIM will also release a tool that runs applications originally designed for Google’s Android operating system, thereby greatly expanding the number of apps a PlayBook user can run. To kill off the tablet would essentially mean all that work was a waste of time.

But there’s another reason RIM must support the PlayBook in the short term. The tablet is the first mobile device to run the QNX operating system, which RIM hopes to put in all its BlackBerrys starting next year. To kill off the first QNX-powered device so early would not bode well for the market’s perception of what a QNX BlackBerry could do. And RIM’s future depends on the success of QNX-powered smart phones.

 

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