It was hot outside the Florida hotel where this year’s annual BlackBerry World conference took place. Inside, it apparently wasn’t hot enough for some financial analysts.
They were looking for evidence that Research In Motion (TSX: RIM)is about launch products that will hack into the considerable lead in smart phone sales that iPhone and Android devices have built up, particularly in the United States.
Despite the fact that RIM CEO Thorsten Heins said in March that the next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system and handset that can run it would only be delivered later this year — a clear sign that little of substance would happen here — financial analysts were disappointed at what they heard.
Yes, there was a peek at what maybe is coming, but it wasn’t BB10 that was running on a prototype handset proudly showed off on Tuesday. It was actually the operating system behind the PlayBook tablet, which admittedly has similar framework, displaying what may or may not be a new user interface. And the prototype handset being passed around to developers won’t see the light of day in production. In fact, it’s called an Alpha.
Not only that, RIM still has yet to name a new chief marketing officer. There was a marketing theme conjured up, around BlackBerry helping uses be successful in their jobs and personal life.
But what will the new CMO do with that?
Of course, financial analyst have to deal with hard numbers — declining sales, dropping revenue, plunging share prices. (Or, in the case of Apple, soaring sales, soaring revenue, soaring share prices.)
Meanwhile, late next month or in July RIM will release another quarterly financial statement that even Heins admits won’t be hot.
Industry analysts, on the other hand, can afford to be cooler. That’s not to say they’re right more than the financial analysts, but some have a different perspective.
Carl Howe, vice-president of mobile applications research at Yankee Group is one of them.
In an interview he dismisses financial analyst as people who don’t understand that RIM isn’t dying. It is, he acknowledges, a company in transition, but other IT companies have been in that boat, too. He cites Microsoft and Apple.
“Every time it’s ugly,” he added. But some survive.
And it’s hard to die when RIM keeps pulling in revenue (although in the last quarter it dipped into the red), he said.
No new finished product here? Why give away secrets? Howe asked. “They know they have one opportunity to make a splash,” he said.
Besides, he adds, the QNX-based operating system behind BB10 is used widely in other industries, giving RIM the opportunity to use it as a multi-device platform. Heins showed off a Porche tricked out with a PlayBook –powered interface to make the point. This is an area Apple won’t got, Howe argues, and could give RIM a field of “uncontested growth.”
Then there’s Heins. After a one-hour meeting Howe was impressed with his “down to earth approach.”
“This is a guy who can get it done,” Howe concluded.
Similarly, Boston based industry analyst Jack Gold was impressed with the BB10 demos, particularly the virtual keyboard that can learn a user’s preferences.
He would have liked to get more details on the upcoming smart phone and the launch date.
“My overall impression from listening to these guys is they’ve got a chance to come back,” he said. “They’re not going to be where they were. They’re not going to capture 50-60 per cent of the market. But the obituaries have been written too soon. They’re not dead yet.”
“At the end of the day,” he added, “it’s all going to about execution. If they can’t technology and convert it into something people want to buy, then it doesn’t matter what they’ve got.”
Howe described himself as “cautiously bullish” about RIM’s future. “It’s their game to lose,” he said.
Trying to discern RIM’s future from all this has a few more variables. It’s no use asking carriers or enterprises how impressed they are with equipment on the market. And then there’s application developers, who RIM needs badly. They have to port their apps to BB10 in sufficient numbers to impress handset buyers. Will they take the time, or continue to put priority on the bigger market held by iPhone and Android?
The wild card, of course, is RIM’s shareholders, who may not be patient. After watching their stock drop, will they sell to someone who offers a slight premium and then, perhaps, breaks up the company?
In short, can they take the heat?