It didn’t take long. Right after Research In Motion Ltd. dropped its latest bombshell results, speculation about whether the company should be split up or sold outright swarmed like a mob of mosquitoes after a cold summer rain.
It goes to show that even if RIM officially changes its name to BlackBerry – shareholders will vote on the makeover at next week’s annual meeting – the company is still set in its old ways. Unforeseen losses, disappointing sales and murky prospects, accompanied by a bloody backlash on the stock markets: This is a scenario RIM shareholders know all too well.
Of course, you could argue that it is too soon to write off the new BlackBerry 10 line of smartphones, on which the company’s future rests. Sales for the Q10 model, which boasts BlackBerry’s flagship keyboard, have just started in the United States and were not reflected in the first-quarter results.
But to the very last of the die-hard RIM defenders, I would suggest this: Prick up your ears and listen very carefully. Still can’t hear anything?
That silence is the absence of any buzz or wow factor for the BB10 phones, despite a number of positive reviews in the tech press. And that silence could well spell the eventual end of RIM as a device manufacturer.
Even if RIM invested heavily in its own marketing, many carriers in the United States are still not promoting the phones with any zeal. Consumer response is also lukewarm, although in this chicken-and-egg debate, it is difficult to ascertain which came first. Clearly, in the most crucial telecom market in the world, BB10 phones are not off to a resounding start.
The decision to open RIM’s very popular instant messaging service to other device manufacturers could also backfire. If consumers typically buy BlackBerry phones to access this service, then the company would lose one of its biggest selling points by allowing others to use it.
Of course, RIM could still have a decent run outside North America, in emerging markets, with the cheaper version of its BB10. Already, Asia, Latin America and Africa are the company’s bread and butter. But if RIM loses its mojo in North America, this will eventually hurt sales in emerging countries, where consumers are equally sensitive to brand appeal – and not only to handset prices.
Moreover, one can only wonder what profit margin the company will be able to extract from its cut-rate phone, the Q5, as competitors such as Samsung and Nokia also launch cheaper handsets at prices approaching a $100 smartphone. More and more, this is a commoditized, low-margin business.
Financial analysts did not waste any time passing judgment. RIM’s results were quickly followed by a flurry of stock downgrades whose repercussions were still being felt on Tuesday. BlackBerry has lost 33 per cent of its market value since last Thursday’s close. But the harshest condemnation of the company’s results may have come from RIM itself.
In the previous quarter, the company was quick to point out that it had shipped one million BlackBerry 10 phones since its launch – the information was highlighted in bold at the top of the press release. In Friday’s release, the information was conspicuously absent.
Only in a later conference call did chief executive officer Thorsten Heins disclose that 2.7 million of the 6.8 million smartphones the company shipped in its first quarter were BB10 devices – and those are shipments, not actual sales to consumers and business users. This figure was at the very low end of expectations from analysts who projected on average that RIM would ship 3.6 million BB10 devices to carriers and electronics retailers.
What is even more disconcerting is the company’s decision to no longer disclose the number of its subscribers. In the first quarter, its subscriber base shrank by another four million users to 72 million, down 10 per cent since it reached its peak of 80 million.
The subscriber base has always been a key measure for RIM. There are no logical reasons to suppress this figure other than to hide it. Nor is it a good idea to be stingy on BB10 data since, sooner or later, the sales reality will catch up with the company.
What this does reveal however is that the company itself is apprehensive about the success of the BB10. And if RIM itself is in doubt, it can hardly blame investors for running.