Touchscreen BlackBerry 10 could save RIM—or at least delay its death

Qwerty model will become available only later, which is good, say analysts

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

“Hardcore BlackBerry lovers” might have to wait up to two months after the release of the BlackBerry 10 touchscreen device to get their hands on one with a physical keyboard, a strategic play by Research In Motion that analysts say reflects what customers want.

RIM chief executive Thorsten Heins, who had already indicated a touchscreen model would launch first, said Friday that the keyboard version — known in the tech community as Qwerty — will come about “30 to 60” days later.

Heins said the company needs to gain market share in the touch phone segment, especially to address a trend in which employers are allowing staff to use their preferred smartphone for work.

“People… and enterprises love a full touch device, and, you know, we had to make a choice and finally we decided really to bring both versions to market very, very close to each other,” he said in an interview with MSNBC.

“The BlackBerry lovers, the hardcore BlackBerry lovers, they love this physical keyboard … so make no mistake we are fully, fully committed to Qwerty.”

The physical keyboard is popular often with BlackBerry business users, and the company — in its advertising — has positioned that as an advantage over Apple and Android phones that rely solely on touchscreens.

The new detail about the closely watched BB10 launch, slated for some time in the first-quarter of next year, comes as RIM (TSX:RIM) stock shot up 8.1 per cent following a much less disappointing than expected second-quarter earnings report.

Analysts were surprised and encouraged by the BlackBerry-maker’s ability to shore up its cash reserves and subscriber base during the quarter — some had been projecting a steady decline in subscribers starting this quarter — as the company honed in on becoming leaner by slashing costs.

But analysts also signalled that the company’s ability to survive pales in comparison to the outcome of the much-delayed launch of BlackBerry 10, and whether that gets them back in the game with tech-savvy consumers.

RIM’s smartphones running the new operating system will have to be able to compete with iPhones and Android devices, telecom analyst Anil Doradla said Friday.

“What happens in North America, specifically the U.S., plays out in the rest of the world in the course of a couple of years,” said Doradla of Chicago-based William Blair & Co.

RIM is releasing a touchscreen phone first because that’s what consumers want, Doradla said.

“They’re trying their best to get back in the consumer game and touch is the name of the game.”

“Are they at a point where one can believe they are going to be meaningfully competitive in this hyper-competitive Apple, Samsung world? We just don’t know,” Doradla said. “This company has let us down so many times in the past.”

Telecom analyst Troy Crandall said he expects the new devices to launch in late February or early March. The phones were first expected to launch earlier this year.

“The longer term goal, obviously, is to regain its competitive position and for its BlackBerry 10 handsets to be competitive with what’s out there or what will be out there,” Crandall said.

Consumers want a larger screen and they are willing to give up a traditional keyboard to get it, said Crandall, of MacDougall, MacDougall & MacTier in Montreal.

“Ultimately a touchscreen phone is the way to go, seems to be the way to go, and where everybody wants to go.”

Crandall noted that RIM’s shares shot up because its financial results weren’t as bad as had been expected, and there was a lot of short selling on the stock.

Shares in Research in Motion (TSX:RIM) shot up 56 cents to close at $7.52 Friday, even though doubts remain about the BlackBerry maker’s ability to compete. They were up almost 14 per cent earlier in the day.

Investors did what’s called a “short squeeze” and it usually only lasts a day or two, he said.

“People basically saw the better-than-expected earnings and thought the stock was going to rocket,” he said.

“So they rushed to cover their positions. By buying back the stock to cover their short positions they put this artificial increase and pressure on the stock which caused it to jump up, and probably higher than it should have.”

Investors sold shares they didn’t own at a higher price, expecting a terrible quarter and expected to buy them back at a lower price, pocketing the difference. When that didn’t happen, they have to cover their short positions, Crandall said.

On Thursday, RIM reported that its quarterly loss was US$235 million or 45 cents per diluted share compared with a profit of $329 million or 63 cents per share a year ago.

The Waterloo, Ont., company’s adjusted loss was $142 million or 27 cents per share. While large, RIM’s loss was still much better than the 47 cents per share loss expected by analysts polled by Bloomberg.

National Bank analyst Kris Thompson was enthusiastic about RIM’s quarterly results and increased his target share price to $12 from $8.

“The new management team is executing by maintaining the BlackBerry subscriber base, managing costs and cash and seemingly readying an early 2013 BB10 global platform launch,” Thompson said in a research note.

But UBS analyst Phillip Huang said even though RIM had “marginally” better results, the launch of its new smartphones is critical.

“What is key to the thesis, in our opinion, is the extent to which BB10 will be successful,” he said in a note.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.