The morning ahead was looking packed enough for Thorsten Heins without having to worry about the traffic. Even with a police escort muscling Jakarta’s roads open for him, the CEO of Research In Motion knew that inching just a few kilometres across this metropolis could chew up a couple of hours. And Heins was determined to be airborne for the Philippines by early afternoon on this October day. Before the slog to the airport, his obligations included breakfast with the Canadian ambassador, a meeting with the head of a consumer group representing local BlackBerry users, a session with staff in RIM’s Jakarta office, a photo shoot, a press conference and a quick march through one of the many BlackBerry retail outlets mushrooming across this country of 248 million people. The pace was gruelling, but Heins had ample motivation for the blitz: “Indonesia’s crucial to us,” he declared.
Heins even donned a traditional Indonesian batik shirt to prove his point. If the friendly local touch was offset by an aggressive security detail–a photographer for this magazine was threatened and strong-armed during a scheduled shoot–the tense reality at a good-news event seemed appropriate enough for a company that is in the fight of its life, and likewise for a CEO who must prove his mettle in short order.
With more than half of all Indonesia’s 20 million or more smartphone users currently tethered to BlackBerrys, now was the time, Heins said after the press conference, to step up RIM’s presence in the world’s fourth most-populous nation. Yesterday, he’d talked up RIM’s upcoming operating system and fresh suite of products–BlackBerry 10–with Indonesia’s main BlackBerry distributors and the CEOs of the country’s three largest phone companies. Depending on how BB10 fares, Heins knows, Indonesia’s love affair with Canada’s most famous export has strong potential to continue growing. The same is true in many developing-world markets around the globe.
The backdrop to this success story, however, is that RIM has lost most of its reliable, high-margin market share in rich countries in North America and Europe while gaining low-margin traction in unpredictable, poor ones. It’s a risky formula for recovery. But it may be the only hope that RIM has.
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As Heins grinds his overbooked way around the globe, it’s a sweaty, sub-Saharan Sunday night on the industrial outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria, a twin of sorts to Jakarta: Each city, with more than 10 million people, is the largest one in the country, humming with energy and potential. At the hangar-sized New Afrika Shrine, Femi Kuti is leading his Afrobeat band, thundering out a wall of sound as female dancers stomp on the vast stage and gyrate in cages raised above the audience.
Wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke, people are enjoying themselves–dancing, drinking, shooting pool. Thanks to the low admission fee, the crowd is a cross-section of Nigerian society. But the people dancing near the stage are younger. At the hippest spot in town, it’s not lighters bobbing in the dark–it’s a constellation of glowing BlackBerrys, recording the spectacle.
Here, as in dozens of other kinetic boom towns anchoring the world’s teeming emerging markets, there are no iPhones in sight. Canadian technology reigns supreme: The BlackBerry is Nigeria’s most popular smartphone, no contest.
The BlackBerry now accounts for roughly 50 per cent of the rapidly growing smartphone market in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and its second-largest economy after South Africa–where the BlackBerry is also the most popular smartphone. The tool that Bay Street loved, and now loves to hate, is not just cooler than all the other smartphones here; it is the device of strivers and celebrities alike. It signals that its bearer has arrived, that you are very possibly a big man, that you are a somebody among the masses of the developing world still thumbing SMS messages on their Nokia dumbphones like a farmer, getting absolutely nowhere.
“Everybody sees me with a BlackBerry and actually smiles, like, ‘Yeah, he’s the man,’ ” says Albert Samuel, a 28-year-old salesperson at Effects Network, one of the mobile phone shops in Computer Village, a ramshackle district of Lagos near the international airport where many of the city’s consumer electronics are sold. “Here in Lagos, everybody who uses a BlackBerry is presumed to be a very rich guy, somebody who has everything.”
But resting on laurels when the domination of its signature product seems absolute is precisely what, in the past, screwed RIM so completely. Where it once roosted atop the mobile industry, RIM–and its share price–are now plumbing brutal lows, as the company deals with setback after setback. If some events seemed comic, as when two incredibly drunk RIM executives were restrained on an Air Canada flight, others were tragic: The company started laying off 5,000 people while it was simultaneously trying to ramp up for the Jan. 30 unveiling of BB10, the Hail Mary effort to arrest RIM’s long slide into Nortel territory.
On the ground in Lagos, as in Jakarta, the story is much more positive: There’s a genuine enthusiasm for the BlackBerry that would shock the legions of RIM detractors back home. Here, RIM is scrambling to keep up with demand.
Nigeria is a classic emerging market. Like other giants of the developing world, it has a huge, growing population that is slowly getting wealthier. Although 70 per cent of the population remains below the poverty line, per capita GDP climbed from less than $450 in 2001 to about $2,600 by 2011.
There is almost no landline infrastructure across the developing world, so mobile growth is explosive once state-owned phone monopolies have been torn down and private companies are allowed to build out wireless networks. Nigeria is no exception: Its 170 million people have about 100 million mobile subscriptions. But because the still-growing networks are congested, many people carry multiple SIM cards to ensure that they can connect. And businesspeople often carry two phones, which means the total number of people with mobile phones is likely much lower.
That’s a lot of room for growth, especially since there are only about four million smartphones in the country, roughly half of them BlackBerrys. Those buying smartphones for the first time typify the leapfrogging of technological phases that takes place in the global south. “It’s not only that you get your e-mail on the go,” says Thecla Mbongue, senior Africa analyst with Informa Telecoms and Media. “It’s access to the Internet, when computers are still really expensive.”
Of course, Nigeria is also an oil-soaked core sample of emerging market risk. RIM has bought into a country riven with deep-rooted problems. The billions in revenues extracted from the mangrove swamps of the southern Niger Delta fuel a disconnect between an untaxed populace and politicians who are often dependent on corrupt networks greased with misappropriated oil funds. In the mainly Muslim north, the extreme Islamist sect Boko Haram is detonating car bombs and blowing up churches, prompting a crackdown by the state’s Joint Military Task Force; together, the two opposing forces have killed roughly 2,800 people since 2009, according to Human Rights Watch.
The conflict has a direct impact on the telecom industry. Like most of Lagos’s buildings, cell towers in the country not only have their own security guards, but also run on diesel generators for 22 hours of each day, because the electrical grid is so unreliable. Since diesel has to be stored on site, it’s easy for Boko Haram to torch the installations. The imposing towers often survive, but Nigeria is still an expensive place to run a network; that translates, of course, into higher per-minute call costs in Nigeria than in India or other African countries.
The challenges of the market don’t end with economic and religious conflict. Like many poor countries, Nigeria has an immense informal economy–street vendors and unlicensed businesses–that is estimated at roughly two-thirds the size of the formal economy. Handset vendors like RIM must contend with a vast “grey market,” somewhere between legit and illegal, that includes second-hand BlackBerrys imported from the United Kingdom and “refurbs” banged back into working order. Needless to say, phones sold this way–60 per cent of the market by one knowledgeable estimate–aren’t exactly helping sales targets back in Waterloo, even if they might count toward RIM’s global subscriber count. Of course, since RIM runs a proprietary global messaging network that requires a “service access fee,” even second-hand BlackBerrys, once registered on a network, will kick something into the company’s coffers. But many people simply treat the BlackBerry like the Nokias they traded up from: as simple cellphones. (An executive at a wireless carrier in another African country reports that of 40,000 BlackBerrys on the network, only about 6,000 are activated for e-mail.) If customers aren’t paying full freight and the only upgrade they value is in cachet, how on earth are emerging markets like these going to save RIM?
When I bring up the grey market with Robert Bose, RIM’s Paris-based managing director for the Middle East and Africa, he talks about campaigns to emphasize official devices, and then shows me a BlackBerry with an “Original BlackBerry smartphone” picture set as the home display screen. This is apparently a safeguard against Nigeria’s desperate entrepreneurs.
Told it won’t take long for that symbol to be itself knocked off, Bose looks stunned for a moment, like a kid wearing a cape who has been told it won’t allow him to fly. Then he begins to laugh; knocked off his talking points, he talks frankly about the airport strikes that have left shipments of marooned BlackBerrys exposed to the elements on the tarmac, the barriers that the Arab world’s revolutions have posed for moving product around the region, and the riots that leave mobile phone shops destroyed.
There’s only so much RIM can do against unpredictable challenges like these, but the company knows it can improve on everything else. Within some 300 phone stores in Nigeria, it is rolling out RIM kiosks. It has launched about 60 software upgrade centres. And it continues to strike partnerships in the country, most recently with local carrier Visafone. In South Africa, meanwhile, BlackBerry Buddies kiosks in malls allow people to upgrade software and chat about keyboard shortcuts with RIM staff–as opposed to unaffiliated phone-shop employees like Albert Samuel. In markets where most people don’t have PCs or laptops, such measures might help ensure a teenager can actually grow up without switching phones.
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It isn’t just RIM, of course, that has come to Nigeria: The head count here for Chinese giant Huawei recently doubled from 600 to 1,200. (The company has 140,000 employees globally; RIM will have only about 11,500 staff by the end of this fiscal year.) Competitors complain that Huawei, a private company, negotiates unfairly low payment schedules for its network operator clients of as much as five years–20 per cent per year–thanks to access to cheap loans from state-owned Chinese banks. By way of response, country manager Pan Fan says that there are a lot of “rumours” in the market. What is indisputable is that Huawei is ruthless and successful: Earlier this year, it overtook Ericsson as the world’s biggest telecom vendor.
Unlike RIM, whose fall in developed markets and shrunken stock have made the company a takeover target, Huawei is able to bide its time. Pan says RIM right now is essentially getting a small slice of a small cake, targeting those Nigerians with enough money to afford a BlackBerry; regardless of whether it’s a top-end Bold or a lower-priced Curve, each device still costs around $200. The real money is to be made when the masses truly start buying smartphones, when the prices dip below the $100 price point prevalent now to $80 and perhaps even $70, Pan says. As with Ericsson, which has failed against Huawei in the telecom infrastructure business, Pan is unimpressed by his old-world rivals in markets upgrading from dumbphones to smartphones. “Nokia, BlackBerry, these two companies declined because of a lack of innovation. It’s not a competitor who beat them–they’ve been left behind,” Pan says methodically. “Right now, the cake is too small. ...We are targeting the big cake.”
For all its might, Huawei is still only getting started here, and, along with firms like Tecno, it faces a bias against “Chinaphones.” The biggest threat of all to RIM is Samsung, the massive integrated South Korean conglomerate that boasts more than 220,000 employees and makes everything from fridges to ships. It is moving into markets like Nigeria fast and hard, and has both cheap and expensive smartphones for sale, with a vast network of service centres and impressive warranties lasting as long as 24 months, in a market where replacing a device can be debilitatingly expensive.
At the high end of the nascent smartphone market here, it’s clear that Samsung is gaining. The company’s sequential growth between the first and second quarters of 2012, according to market research firm IDC, was 511 per cent; for RIM, which has more than 60 per cent of the market, sequential growth was only 70 per cent.
One of RIM’s advantages, on the other hand, is BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM, a tool that helped BlackBerrys spread virally in developing countries, where per-text SMS fees can be onerously expensive for the poor. RIM’s BBM service, which forms a minuscule part of a broader wireless data package, is practically free. But at its core, BBM is just cheap texting; iPhones and Android devices now have comparable services. BBM’s one true advantage is the stickiness–if you switch to a non-BlackBerry phone, you’ll lose your contact list.
RIM has also held on well partly thanks to its technology: BlackBerrys work better on older networks like Nigeria’s because of RIM’s compression technology, and the company’s relay network makes sure messages arrive promptly, even if a cell tower is congested or low on diesel. In the West, this advantage has stopped mattering, and Nigerian telecom veterans believe that, as developing countries move from 2G networks to 3G networks optimized for wireless data, BlackBerrys will fall out of fashion the same way they have in the West.
Bosun Tijani, who runs a tech hub for developers that gets funding from RIM, Google and Nokia, thinks this won’t come to pass for a long while. “We’ve had ‘3G’ for ages and we still can’t get it. What people are telling you is crap,” he says. “Right now, BlackBerry is still one of the only smartphones where it works. If you use some Android phones, you lose your data like that,” he says with a snap of his fingers. He even praises RIM’s oft-derided PlayBook tablet because it can tether to his phone’s wireless connection. That’s handy–he can read documents in the back of a car while the driver negotiates Lagos’s gridlock.
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If RIM has been forced into a different game than the one it started in, you wouldn’t know it from the company’s presentations in Jakarta. In parlaying itself from a Canadian-based technology company with strong roots serving corporate and government clients in North America and Europe into a globalized consumer brand, RIM has achieved a vast transition in just a handful of years, said its chief marketing officer, Frank Boulben.
The narrative RIM’s CEO was selling in Jakarta was even more heroic: Thorsten Heins told his Indonesian partners–thanks to his assurance BB10 will enable significantly better Internet browsing and multitasking capabilities than Samsung and Apple have developed–that RIM is now poised to transform itself from a mobile-phone powerhouse to a mobile-computing innovator that will again surge ahead of its competitors. “We’re morphing to a new technology platform that will redefine our business,” Heins insisted as he manoeuvred among his guests in a hospitality suite at the Ritz-Carlton. “We’re redefining ourselves as mobile computing, not mobile phones.”
The same could be said, of course, of all smartphones for the past five years. Heins was probably on more solid ground when he emphasized cachet. In a rapidly industrializing country where annual GDP growth averages over 6 per cent and consumer spending is expected to grow 39 per cent by 2020, ownership of a BlackBerry telegraphs status. “We see the BlackBerry as a tool for success,” Heins said after an impromptu encounter with a handful of BlackBerry users outside RIM’s Indonesian headquarters. “It helps them win.”
If some of RIM’s guests at the Ritz-Carlton seemed uncannily familiar with Heins’s vision of mobile phones morphing into mobile computers, an explanation was obvious: Many of them had spent the previous day at a lavish event, also at the Ritz, sponsored by Samsung–RIM’s archrival here, as elsewhere. They’d been regaled with food, drink, demonstrations and gift bags, all in the name of promoting Samsung’s new line of phones. These, according to the spiel from Samsung executives, are all capable of “seamless multitasking, allowing users to quickly search content without having to go through various screen transitions.” So when Boulben boasted alongside Heins the next day that RIM’s new operating system would “take it to the next level” in offering a seamless flow between functions such as messaging, e-mailing and web browsing, there were no gasps in the room: What he got instead was a series of prickly questions about BlackBerry’s famously weak batteries, maddening service disruptions and the lack of RIM manufacturing facilities in Indonesia. (The complaints were much the same at a RIM press event in Lagos.)
With consolidated sales of $143-billion in 2011, Samsung Electronics is swagger-prone: Its event at the Ritz wasn’t labelled a product launch; it was a stop on a “World Tour.” But unlike with RIM’s effort to put on the Ritz, there were some very new, very shiny tangibles to be discussed: Arrayed in an alcove under the stewardship of a dozen svelte models in tight white jeans, Samsung’s entire lineup of Galaxy tablets and smartphones lay beeping and flashing like beguiling toys begging for playtime to begin. “Consumers expect mobile devices to fit seamlessly into their lifestyles and open the way to new experiences that they didn’t think possible,” cooed Yooyoung Kim, president of Samsung Indonesia. The latest Samsung phone, he said, is a “perfect example of a mobile device that encourages users to unleash their inner creativity.” And to pry away the Indonesian market from RIM, Kim vowed to double Samsung’s regional marketing team over the next 12 months.
Whether Samsung will topple RIM in Indonesia is a question Hasan Aula spends a lot of time pondering. He runs PT Teletama Artha Mandiri, Indonesia’s largest distributor of BlackBerry handsets. As intermediary between a procurement company in Singapore and 17,000 BlackBerry vendors across Indonesia, Aula follows the market dynamics with microscopic attention to detail–not least because he also distributes handsets for RIM’s competitors. “BlackBerry is controlling the smartphone market very well,” he says. The reason for its success in Indonesia, he adds, lies in the popularity of BBM: “It’s the killer app. People here have a very community-oriented mindset. BBM is seen to be private and secure, and with BlackBerry they get unlimited usage for e-mail, BBM and web browsing for as little as $5 a month.”
With at least half of the Indonesian smartphone market in its grasp, BlackBerry’s future now depends not on messaging but on its new phones with improved web browsing and computing, Aula predicts. As the former director of Nokia Indonesia back when it controlled the country’s cellphone market (a period referred to as “Nokia Time”), Aula has seen telephone titans come and go. He thinks that RIM’s dominance could likewise prove ephemeral. “It’s now all about content beyond messaging,” he explains. “That’s what Apple and Samsung are selling.” During a meal with Thorsten Heins on the day Samsung’s World Tour came to town, Aula got an early look at BB10, which he describes as “very strong.” But RIM, he warns, could ill afford to delay releasing its new operating system and the phones that will use it. “The next phase for RIM here will depend on whether they have another killer app like BBM. And it depends on how fast they can launch it.”
To find that killer app, RIM conducted extensive research among Indonesian consumers to help refine BB10. More than anything else, says Hastings Singh, RIM’s managing director in South Asia, BlackBerry users want a machine that matches Samsung and Apple for browsing and computing while offering BBM and new apps tailored to the Indonesian market. So far, RIM’s success in creating locally crafted apps has been limited to an Islamic prayer guide and a tourism directory. To fertilize a new array of apps, RIM has launched a nationwide talent search for app developers across Indonesia and sponsored a regional series of “hackathon” competitions, including one in Jakarta recently that ran for 40 hours before the winning team came up with an app called Soccer Ticker.
In early October, RIM reinforced its app-seeding efforts by launching a $5-million BlackBerry Innovation Centre at the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia’s leading technical university. “This is the most exciting initiative in app training and development RIM’s ever done,” Singh told hundreds of young programmers gathered to bag some RIM swag before he awarded research scholarships in mobile computing to 16 students. When a student in a shirt emblazoned with the Android logo parked himself directly in front of RIM’s logoed podium, polite laughter rippled through the room. Singh pressed on, reprising a speech packed with mobile computing buzzwords–ecosystem, cloning, app community, rich app environment, innovation, innovation, innovation.
But for RIM to grow in Indonesia, or even hang on to its turf, new technology is only part of the challenge, according to many observers. RIM must also pull off a huge marketing coup, says Andy Jobs, a Jakarta TV executive who believes BlackBerry’s lustre as a status symbol is fading here (himself, he uses a Samsung phone and an iPhone in addition to his BlackBerry). RIM, he suggests, needs to aggressively target promotional campaigns toward the middle and lower tiers of the market. Until now, RIM has relied on Indonesian wireless carriers to market its BlackBerrys, says Jobs, who has a background in marketing at Indosat, Indonesia’s second-largest phone company. “Continuing to rely on the carriers for promotion would be a big mistake, because the telcos are not pushing BlackBerry. And the power of the telcos here is huge,” he warns. “I’m not saying RIM is dead. But the operators now are pushing iPhone and Android. So RIM will need to refocus its marketing, especially if they are counting on Indonesia to help them survive.”
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Until Arif Hidayat started selling cellphone airtime, his shop on a back alley in Bogor, a hardscrabble suburb of Jakarta, was devoted entirely to cigarettes, snacks and soft drinks. But when he began selling pay-as-you-go airtime a few years ago, his business quickly changed. Driven by the enormous popularity of cellphones–Indonesia’s 248 million people operate 260 million phones–Hidayat’s sales surged. These days, the bulk of his income comes from selling airtime and cellphones. The hottest item in his tiny shop is a Chinese-made smartphone that looks remarkably similar to a BlackBerry Torch, but which retails for about $40–a tenth of the cost of the real thing.
The BlackBerry knockoff–known locally as a Pineapple–is just one of many such look-alike products on offer: For about the same price as the Pineapple, he also sells a knockoff of a Samsung Galaxy phone. None of the imitation phones perform nearly as well as the real thing, acknowledges Hidayat: no BBM on a Pineapple. But in Bogor, where family incomes average about $100 a month, the Pineapple is priced right, he enthuses. “These are people who could never afford a real BlackBerry. But they are certainly happy to pay a little extra to upgrade from a conventional phone to a smartphone that offers many functions a BlackBerry offers.” Asked what people would be willing to pay to ditch their Pineapples for the real thing, Hidayat had a ready answer: “For a real BlackBerry? $100 at most.”
That means the residents of Bogor, and the tens of millions of other Indonesians in the $100/month bracket won’t be trading their Pineapples for BlackBerrys any time soon: At RIM stores in Jakarta, the cheapest BlackBerry on sale is the Curve, at about $170. According to Frank Boulben, that’s not going to change: The new line of phones based on the BB10 operating system will include six models across three price tiers, he says, with the marketing “skewed toward the higher end.” The idea of a cut-price BlackBerry wasn’t something Thorsten Heins wanted to discuss while he was here, either. “You have to understand the segment we’re in,” he insisted. “I’d love everyone to have a BlackBerry. But we’re not in a position to build a $30 phone.”
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While local executives like Singh and Bose vie to prolong the shine of RIM’s crown jewel, the bosses back in Waterloo are trying to knock the dents out of some pretty gruesome numbers, partly by axing thousands of jobs. Revenue in the first six months of fiscal 2013 was $5.7-billion, nearly 40 per cent less than the year before; and during the same period, RIM’s almost magical misfortune made a $1-billion profit disappear, while conjuring a $753-million loss. Though RIM has a sizable cash pile of $2.3-billion, that needs to carry the ailing company through an era of austerity that would make Europe blush: more months of slowing sales as RIM’s current crop of aging BlackBerrys look even more rotten compared to the others; then, RIM needs to go on an advertising blitz to launch BlackBerry 10 into a world now dominated by only two smartphone ecosystems, Apple’s iOS and Android. Nokia and Microsoft teamed up to create a third ecosystem called Windows Phone, but even with resources many magnitudes greater than RIM’s, they have so far failed.
In tech, the breakneck cycle of innovation means the titans of today are not guaranteed a tomorrow. It wasn’t that long ago that Nokia’s candy-bar phones were must-haves across Europe and North America; the company found huge success with the original expansion of basic wireless networks in the developed world. Like RIM later did, the Finnish firm missed key industry shifts–in Nokia’s case, to flip-phones; in RIM’s case, to touch screens–and then slunk off, southward and eastward, to do business mainly in challenging, lower-income countries; and like RIM now, Nokia is still around, selling phones far away from Silicon Valley’s sometimes myopic gaze. Heins is a veteran of these types of commoditized technology markets. At Siemens, where he spent most of his career, he battled Chinese network companies that were challenging the German firm’s optical networking business. In that fight, he won. Later, he was told to turn around the company’s mobile phone unit; at that, he failed. Lothar Pauly, former CEO of Siemens Communications, was Heins’s boss for years; he thinks RIM benefits from Heins’s global outlook. “The North Americans tend to see themselves as the centre of the world,” Pauly says from Munich. “They are not.”
RIM’s reluctance to discuss flooding emerging markets with bargain-bin BlackBerrys is understandable. With its technological advantages slowly slipping away and competition getting fiercer, the BlackBerry’s aspirational brand status is almost all that RIM has left in these markets. The average selling price of BlackBerrys has slowly come down for the last several years and is now about $229, even as Apple can sell the iPhone 5 for as much as $900. The last thing RIM wants to do is drag prices lower, debasing its brand and hastening the commoditization that killed the BlackBerry’s popularity in the West. Heins is well aware of the danger, and as RIM’s chief operating officer, was said to have fought to keep RIM’s brand intact by keeping prices up.
With new-found discipline under Heins, RIM has a chance at making a viable, profitable business out of emerging markets. But as the smartphone sector booms in places like Indonesia and Nigeria, RIM’s share of that growth–if recent stats are any indication–is likely to shrink, and the firm may cede its dominant market share, particularly as networks get better, Android phones get cheaper, and even more competition arrives. Apple, which squashed RIM in the West, recently struck retail partnerships in Nigeria.
RIM is scrambling to thicken its presence on the ground in this part of the world, especially as the launch of BB10 gets closer. The new phones, though high-end, will launch in Nigeria, South Africa and Indonesia at the same time as they’re introduced in other crucial markets, such as the U.S., that RIM needs to regain rather than simply reinforce. And there are signs of hope. In early November, when RIM announced that BB10 devices had gone into lab testing at 50 important carriers around the world (a critical, pre-launch milestone), its battered shares rose more than 10 per cent. Analysts, once almost universally bearish, seem to see the potential for a spike in formerly flatlining prospects. Tom Astle of Byron Capital Markets summed up the cautious optimism in research dispatched in early November. “A BUY rating on RIM?” he wrote in a note to clients. “Are we raving mad?”