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John Chen, interim CEO and executive chairman of BlackBerry, is pictured in 2009. BlackBerry announced Chen as interim CEO on Nov. 25, 2013, replacing Thorsten Heins. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
John Chen, interim CEO and executive chairman of BlackBerry, is pictured in 2009. BlackBerry announced Chen as interim CEO on Nov. 25, 2013, replacing Thorsten Heins. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

What to expect from Friday's BlackBerry earnings Add to ...

Friday will be a big day for BlackBerry Ltd. The company releases third-quarter earnings for the period ending Nov. 30 before the market opens – the first financial report under interim CEO John Chen – and the numbers will be ugly. But that’s not all investors are looking for. On the Friday before Christmas, they will be visited by three ghosts: BlackBerry’s past, present and future.

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The ghost of BlackBerry past

This has been a disastrous year after the BlackBerry 10 smartphone platform fizzled after takeoff, accelerating a multi-year decline in market share. BlackBerry wrote down inventory of unsold phones by nearly $1-billion (U.S.) in the second quarter. An auction of the company failed after shareholder Fairfax Financial Holdings pulled its takeover offer and instead led a $1-billion recapitalization, ushering in Mr. Chen to replace Thorsten Heins.

Analysts polled by Bloomberg as of Thursday called for a loss of 54.7 cents per share compared with a 2-cent profit in the same period a year earlier, on sales of $1.6-billion, down 40 per cent year over year. Remember, new CEOs who inherit troubled companies want to clean house quickly; BGC analyst Colin Gillis speculated in a note Thursday that “revenue and losses may be volatile” compared with forecasts as “the quarter may be loaded with writeoff and head count reduction charges.” Don’t be surprised by worse-than-expected headline numbers.

The ghost of BlackBerry present

Mr. Chen has been active for an interim CEO, bringing in three former colleagues from his days running database software firm Sybase, while showing several top executives the door. Mr. Chen has so far suggested he will largely stay the course, focusing on managing fleets of handheld devices for BlackBerry’s corporate/government (”enterprise”) clients, growing its BlackBerry Messenger instant messaging service and maintaining its leadership in mobile security. He’s keen to squeeze growth out of BlackBerry’s QNX software arm. It’s unclear how committed he is to actually making and selling BlackBerry devices. Perhaps we’ll find out on Friday.

The ghost of BlackBerry future

The recapitalization was supposed to gird the company for what Mr. Chen has warned will be several tough quarters. So what he has to say about the financial outlook is key. An early test will be whether Fairfax decides to exercise its extended option from the recapitalization and buy another $250-million worth of convertible debentures.

Mr. Chen not only has to enunciate a strategy, but execute on the company’s current business and find a new base from which to rebuild. That points to a much smaller company, even after the current round of cuts is done by mid-2014. BlackBerry’s highly profitable services business, which is based on fees it charges to carriers per BlackBerry user, is in decline, something Mr. Chen will have to address.

On the positive side, mobile instant messaging is hot; if BlackBerry can grow BBM quickly and make up ground it lost to others it could create some value. The fact Mr. Chen has recruited so many former colleagues should give investors some comfort. Mr. Chen has been been winning widespread praise, even from those who have left the company. He’s turned around one tech company before. Was he lucky, or is he good? We’ll find out starting Friday.

Follow on Twitter: @SeanSilcoff

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