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A man walks out of the Blackberry maker Research in Motion’s campus in Waterloo April 18, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
A man walks out of the Blackberry maker Research in Motion’s campus in Waterloo April 18, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Research In Motion's new reality Add to ...

Research In Motion Ltd. is not dead. But it's dead as we know it.

The sacking of 5,000 people, or about one-third of its work force, means that RIM, once Canada's most valuable public company, will be a dramatically different place when – or if – it emerges from its current restructuring.

Although it is a sensitive topic to broach in Canada, where RIM's BlackBerry blossomed into the country's most iconic global brand, the Waterloo, Ont.-based tech titan's best days appear to be over. Comebacks do happen in the technology business – witness Apple Inc.'s rise from the corporate grave – but they are rare. And with layoffs rippling across RIM's work force and the crucial release of new smartphones delayed again until next year, the company will continue to produce bad news and bad numbers over the next six months as it tries to implement a turnaround strategy in which few have faith.

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Even if management can simultaneously slash costs and release a phenomenal new smartphone, a growing chorus of industry experts, former RIM executives and analysts say it will not be enough to return the company to its former glory. Many of these people believe RIM's future is unlikely to be anything more than a niche player, offering efficient devices to business people and operating a low-margin business in the emerging markets where it still sees growth.

That is, assuming it has a future at all as an independent company. With a market value of less than $4-billion, more than $2.2-billion (U.S.) of cash in the bank and a large trove of valuable patents, the company seems vulnerable to a takeover.

A source familiar with the company's strategy said a number of suitors, including Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc., have expressed some interest to investment bankers. The board, however, has little inclination to engage in talks while the stock price is so depressed, this person said, and prefers to wait until RIM sees the market reaction to the BlackBerry 10 line of phones next years before it considers any radical change in course.

In the meantime, RIM executives and directors must face a painful reality: The company has gone to battle in the consumer phone market against Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., and it has been routed. It has only a fraction of the financial resources of those rivals, and a fraction of the manpower.

It might make more sense for RIM to give up its ambitions of beating the giants and become something else.

“It's extremely doubtful they'll have a position of leadership ever again – they're going to become niche,” says one former RIM executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has an ongoing business relationship with the company. “Do they have the moxie to become the Bang & Olufsen of smartphones?” the executive asked, referring to the high-end Danish manufacturer of audio-visual equipment.

For RIM, which has failed along with other stumbling handset giants such as Nokia Corp. to deliver a competitive option to Apple Inc.'s iPhone, it probably does not make sense to chase after consumers that are currently using iPhones and Android devices. These people are extremely unlikely to switch from those phones or the software ecosystems that come with them, with hundreds of thousands of apps, to take a chance on BlackBerry 10 – especially given the bruised state of RIM's brand. (Indeed, in its first-quarter earnings announcement this week, RIM entirely wrote off its “goodwill,” which refers in part to the value of the company's brand.)

RIM's new president and chief executive officer, Thorsten Heins, said RIM is evaluating opportunities to license its upcoming BlackBerry 10 software platform to other hardware makers. But the likelihood of winning new BlackBerry converts among existing smartphone users in the developed markets of North America and Europe is small. The delay in BlackBerry 10 phones will make it even more difficult because RIM will likely be up against a newer version of the iPhone, more advanced Android phones from Samsung and the latest Windows Phone system.

One RIM current employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the announced delay of the BlackBerry 10 “is more of a letdown” than the 5,000 layoffs. Yet the hesitation is understandable. RIM has paid the price previously for putting devices on the market before they were ready, such as the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet last year, which was a bust, and the BlackBerry Storm, its failed attempt to make a full touch-screen device to compete against the iPhone.

“No one wants to release a product that's not ready; you want to make something that's excellent,” the employee said. “It's usually from a financial side that we need to get something out the door. It happened with the Storm, and nobody wants to see that again.”

Mr. Heins stressed this week that RIM was focusing primarily on corporate customers and the so-called BYOD segment – which stands for Bring Your Own Device, the trend of having one smartphone for work and personal life. Many analysts say this is not an aggressive growth strategy, but it may make some sense.

About 40 per cent of the world's 78 million BlackBerry users are corporate users, and RIM's best chances might lie in trying to stabilize that base by persuading corporations that it makes sense to upgrade to newer, better BlackBerrys rather than transition thousands of employees onto a different platform.

But if and when BlackBerry 10 finally hits store shelves, analysts are extremely skeptical that it will capture a significant amount of market share. And if RIM continues to find success in emerging markets, it will likely only do so with much lower profit margins. While the company has found pockets of strong growth in Asia and Africa, it's also beginning to find much tougher competition in those places from Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei – complicating a precarious financial situation that is now defined by declining sales, revenue and profit.

With fewer employees, less money and less market share, RIM won't look like the RIM of old. “We believe this was the last quarter of subscriber growth,” National Bank Financial analyst Kris Thompson wrote in a note to clients.

Shrunken, RIM will lack the scale necessary to access the best hardware components in the globalized manufacturing supply chain, losing out on both cost and quality as huge rivals like Samsung and Apple sew up suppliers and marginalize RIM, making it more costly to produce high-quality devices. At best, RIM will become “smaller and a niche player, or they become irrelevant or bought or broken up,” says Mike Abramsky, a principal with RedTeam Global who followed RIM for years as an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities.

“There aren't too many pleasant options.”

Follow on Twitter: @iainmarlow

 
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