The recovery of RIM
Are there enough variables in the mix to give RIM new hope?
When a doctor informs a family that their loved one is "doing better than expected" it doesn't typically ignite great flames of optimism for a speedy recovery. And so it is with the news that in the second quarter of its fiscal year, Research in Motion did "better than expected."
What does that actually mean?
In terms of vital signs, it means the patient is more or less stable — if not actually healthy. Revenue clocked in at $2.9 billion, a slight improvement (two per cent) from the same period a year ago. Including restructuring costs, however, there was still a $235 million loss.
Although analysts have been poised to administer the last rites for a while, the consensus seems to be that RIM's cash reserves of $2.3 billion are an important measure of its ability to fund the refinement and launch of the long-promised BB10 operating system.
Expectations around the new operating system have become increasingly — even alarmingly — high. RIM-watchers appear to have accepted the view that if it's anything less than mind-bending, the entire company will collapse.
It doesn't exactly help to manage those inflated expectations when the company CEO, Thorsten Heins, does things like clatter on publicly about how excited telecom carriers are about the new devices that will support the operating system.
But maybe, just maybe, the future of RIM won't only come down to Hail Mary hype and a mass embrace of BB10 technology.
A cold-eyed look at the smartphone market which is increasingly polarized between Apple and Android/Google camps indicates there is a potentially lucrative middle ground between the two sides.
According to research firm IDC, Android smartphones have a 68 per cent share of the market, Apple is at 17 per cent and RIM has slipped below five per cent. But it's also a market that's growing steadily (up 42.5 per cent year over year in the first quarter of 2012 according to IDC) and is expected to be worth $150 billion in the next 18 months.
In other words, carving out a clearly-identified sweet spot in a fractious market could mean some pretty good eating for RIM.
Certainly the problems between the two biggest dogs in the field doesn't hurt.
The tension between Google and Apple wasn't always as profound as it has recently become: the CEO of Google,
Eric Schmidt, was on the Apple board of directors for several years. Another director, Arthur Levinson, also served on both boards until he was forced to choose between them in 2009.
That's when the chill set in. And things have been getting steadily frostier ever since. Things cooled even further last year when Apple successfully sued Samsung — Android's biggest developer — for $1 billion.
So, despite the fact that the existing contract still has a year to run, Apple did not include the well-established Google Maps as an app on the iPhone 5. The replacement mapping app, initially based on TomTom technology, was deeply flawed and widely derided.
It's increasingly hard to overlook the possible consequences from Apple's growing reputation for heavy-handed arrogance. It's always been a company that's respected rather than loved, which is fine to a point. But it helps to be perceived as fair and responsible if the company wants to avoid reputational risk in the longer term.
For example, content publishers who want to sell online products through iTunes have to pay 30 per cent of subscription revenue to Apple and agree to a host of terms that some have denounced as anti-competitive.
The recent outbreak of labor violence at the factory in China that makes Apple products also revived concerns about the conditions in those plants and related human rights issues. Technology makes it impossible to totally obscure the working conditions in Chinese factories and that transparency comes at a cost for companies like Apple: increasingly, an ethical reputation is as quantifiable a corporate cost as labour or parts.
It's certainly easy to discount RIM's future and it's hard for the company to overcome that grim diagnosis. But there are enough variables in the mix to make the months leading up to the launch of BB10 worth watching.
As Mark Twain once said, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." In the case of RIM, at least, they may be premature.
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