Research in Motion Ltd., edging past low analyst expectations for its third quarter, says it has amassed enough cash to launch its make-or-break BlackBerry 10 phones next month.
But the company faces fresh worries about a key source of revenue. Service access fees that wireless operators pay to use RIM's proprietary network have been falling, but now the company's reduced market power has forced it to cut them further by offering tiered pricing plans.
Despite those worries, there is a sense that Thorsten Heins – who was appointed RIM's CEO when Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie stepped down at the beginning of the year – has focused the company's inefficient operations, and turned it into a leaner organization that can execute on strategy.
"We believe the company has stabilized and will turn the corner in the next year," Mr. Heins said during RIM's conference call with analysts Thursday evening. "We are now in a very strong position to reinvest into our launch and our new platform."
In its third quarter, RIM lost subscribers, sold fewer phones and would have lost money but for a tax credit, but the company beat analysts' expectations and said it is on track to bring out its new phones early next year.
The company brought in $2.7-billion in revenues, 5 per cent less than last quarter, and saw BlackBerry sales decline to 6.9 million units.
Excluding a $166-million favourable tax settlement, the firm, which has struggled against Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. in the global smartphone wars, suffered an adjusted net loss of $114-million. Its worldwide subscriber base, which was hovering slightly above 80 million, dropped in the quarter to 79 million – a reversal of RIM's decade of basically uninterrupted growth.
RIM's loss in the quarter narrowed, revenues were stronger than analysts had expected and the company grew its cash hoard by $600-million to $2.9-billion – money needed for the crucial and complicated global launch of BlackBerry 10 starting Jan. 30.
Executives also said the company's arduous restructuring was providing more savings than anticipated. Coupled with low expectations, RIM's results gave its shares a brief 8-per-cent jump in after-hours trading, before a downbeat conference call – which focused on declining revenue from carrier partners – led to a loss.
The reception from investors and analysts was generally positive, though expectations were low given this quarter is the last before RIM's launch of the BlackBerry 10 devices. Tom Astle of Byron Capital Markets said he is "very happy with execution on almost all fronts," from cash management to what he considers a manageable loss of BlackBerry subscribers.
"If these guys can launch a product as well as they executed this quarter, then this should be a very exciting stock," Mr. Astle said.
But like many of the analysts who peppered Mr. Heins with questions on the conference call, Mr. Astle remained concerned about the future of RIM's so-called service access fee. This lucrative revenue source for RIM is estimated to be 95-per-cent margin and comes from carriers around the world who must pay a per-device fee to access RIM's proprietary messaging network. Mr. Heins and his executives said they are going to offer "tiers" of pricing that analysts assumed would lead to big declines over the next 12 months, at a time when RIM needs the cash.
"There is a lot of confusion on the generation of monthly services revenue as the company transitions to BB10," said analyst Kris Thompson of National Bank Financial, who has generally been bearish on RIM. "You could see the stock sell-off post market when the tiering of service revenue was disclosed on the conference call. Investors will focus on the services model since few, if anyone, expects the company to generate sustainable profit on the hardware business alone."
Regardless of future declines, however, this quarter's results did little to temper the enthusiasm that has swirled around the stock recently. RIM shares have more than doubled since late September on glimpses of its new touchscreen phones, which run a sleeker type of software than older BlackBerrys. Ironfire Capital LLC founder Eric Jackson recently became a RIM shareholder after having shorted the company's stock, and is convinced RIM's momentum will continue.
"I was skeptical of Thorsten Heins when he was appointed CEO," Mr. Jackson said. "I thought he would be Mike's puppet. Then he wasn't a good communicator for the first six months. But ever since, he's done a great job executing and I sense the company is really coming together ahead of the launch."