Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM)’s sales of the BlackBerry smartphone trounced estimates last quarter as it gained ground in emerging markets, signaling that the company may still have a future in the age of the iPhone.
RIM shares rose the most in almost a year in intraday trading after the company sold 7.4 million smartphones, about 500,000 more than analysts had projected. RIM also posted a narrower loss for the period than estimated and increased its cash holdings. That impressed some of RIM’s biggest critics -- including shareholder Vic Alboini, who has previously demanded a shakeup in management and strategy.
“Those numbers are very, very positive,” Alboini, chairman of Toronto-based investment firm Jaguar Financial Corp. (JFC), said in an interview yesterday. “RIM has taken a step up the ladder, and they can see where they’re going.”
The results show that RIM can gain customers in lower- income markets such as Asia and Africa, even as it struggles to compete in the U.S. with Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPhone and devices running Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software. The challenge now is a successful release of the BlackBerry 10 phone, the linchpin of the Waterloo, Ontario-based company’s comeback strategy.
“If they can have another quarter of not burning cash and can get the device out in a few months, then investors are thinking, ‘Perhaps they have a chance to come back,’” said Neeraj Monga, an analyst at Veritas Investment Research in Toronto who rates RIM a sell.
RIM’s free BlackBerry Messenger program, known as BBM, has emerged as a selling point in developing countries, where data plans often cost more.
“It’s amazing when you go into those countries and you see how BBM is just kicking it,” Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins said on a conference call, fresh from a tour through Asia, the Middle East and Africa. “I mean, it’s everywhere.”
RIM also did a better job conserving cash than some analysts predicted, curtailing operating expenses 7.9 percent. Cash and investments grew to $2.3 billion by the end of last quarter, up from $2.2 billion three months earlier.
“The fact cash is not going to burn out in a quarter or two gives us an opportunity to see what BB10 is going to do,” Alboini said.
Revenue fell 31 percent to $2.87 billion in the period, which ended Sept. 1, topping a projection of $2.47 billion.
While sales of the BlackBerry’s phone beat the 6.9 million predicted by analysts, they remain a fraction of Apple’s volume. The latest iPhone, released earlier this month, sold 5 million units in a single weekend.
RIM’s subscriber base climbed to 80 million at the end of last quarter, up from 78 million. Still, the new BlackBerry 10 lineup has been delayed at least a year, making it harder for the company to compete with the latest Apple and Android devices. At RIM’s software developer conference this week in San Jose, California, Heins said the debut of BB10 is “a few short months away,” without being more specific.
The delays mean the BlackBerry 10 will miss the holiday season, when new Android devices and phones built on Microsoft Corp. (MSFT)’s Windows 8 software will hit the market.
RIM’s share of the global smartphone market dropped to 4.8 percent in the second calendar quarter, from 12 percent a year earlier, according to research firm IDC. Still, Heins said this week that BB10 will have a “clear shot” at being the world’s third-largest mobile operating system. That would put it behind Android and Apple’s iOS, and ahead of Microsoft.
RIM posted a second-quarter net loss of $235 million, or 45 cents a share, compared with net income of $329 million, or 63 cents, a year earlier. The company expects to have an operating loss this quarter and face “continued pressure” on its operating results for the remainder of the fiscal year, Chief Financial Officer Brian Bidulka told analysts on the call. He said RIM is using “aggressive pricing initiatives” to sustain the growth of its subscriber base.
“While we applaud the cost and balance sheet improvements, we’d note that selling devices below cost to boost its subscriber base is likely not a viable business solution long term,” said William Power, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. He left his rating unchanged at the equivalent of a sell.
Scotia Capital Inc.’s Gus Papageorgiou raised his rating to sector perform, and Kris Thompson, an analyst at National Bank Financial, boosted his rating to outperform. Cormark Securities Inc.’s Richard Tse lifted his rating to buy.
Heins, who became CEO in January, has embarked on a cost- cutting plan to stem losses at the company. He’s eliminating almost a third of its workforce and shutting down manufacturing sites to boost efficiency.
RIM also has hired JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and RBC Capital Markets to help explore its strategic options. Heins told analysts yesterday that he’s met with CEOs at various organizations over the past several months to discuss BB10 licensing and partnerships. He plans to continue meeting potential partners and hasn’t set a specific timeframe for the end of the review. Heins has said in the past that he hasn’t ruled out a sale of the company, though that’s not his focus.
RIM needs to keep talking to potential partners because there’s no guarantee that BB10 will be the company’s savior, said Jaguar Financial’s Alboini.
“RIM is still losing money,” he said. “You have to have a push-the-button, ready-to-go backup plan.”
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