After RIM warning, all eyes on new product outlook

TORONTO Tue Jun 14, 2011 3:50pm EDT

A man holds a box of the RIM PlayBook in Toronto, April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

A man holds a box of the RIM PlayBook in Toronto, April 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch

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TORONTO (Reuters) - Ever since Research In Motion warned about its quarterly results a month ago, investors have wanted to find out what the BlackBerry maker is doing to save its current quarter as it struggles to roll out competitive new products.

RIM promises impressive devices to challenge Apple's slick iPhone and gadgets based on Google's Android software. Cellular versions of its PlayBook tablet are imminent, RIM says, and the iPad contender will soon be sold worldwide after a lumpy April launch in North America.

But without a launch date for a more powerful touchscreen version of its business workhorse, the Bold smartphone, and with Torch and Storm upgrades still just rumors, investors are growing more and more nervous.

"We believe RIM has now squandered nearly every opportunity and competitive advantage it enjoyed through ineffective R&D resource management, delayed product launches and misreads of the competitive environment," Morgan Stanley analyst Ehud Gelblum wrote in a note to clients.

Although unlikely to make or break RIM's reputation, initial sales of the 7-inch PlayBook will hint at how it stacks up against both the iPad -- which sold 2 million in its first two months -- and Android-based tablets such as Motorola Mobility's Xoom.

Most analysts expect RIM to have sold less than half a million PlayBooks in the United States and Canada in the six-week window. Motorola sold 250,000 Xoom tablets in its first month.

The Canadian company has already said it expects to sell 1 million fewer smartphones than in the previous quarter, the first such decline in at least three years, with sales especially disappointing in Latin America and the fiercely competitive U.S. market.

Most eyes will focus on RIM's forecasts for the current quarter, which ends in late August -- a robust tally would indicate the company expects new models in time for the pivotal back-to-school buying period in late July to early October.

The upshot in the April profit warning was a brisk earnings forecast for RIM's fiscal 2012, which runs until early March, but many see it as only a question of time before RIM has to abandon that target too.

"If things are going as rough as it looks like out there, they'll take down that $7.50 (earnings per share) number this quarter," BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said.

CLEAR THE DECK

In fact, with a share price already touching two-year lows Gillis says a stark management appraisal of RIM's struggle with its major transition could help restore some lost confidence.

"People want to see that they are living on the same planet everyone else is living on," he said. "If they cleared the decks and reset everything the stock might go up on the news."

RIM shares have lost more than 40 percent of their value since a February peak, and now trade around five times its own earnings forecast and less than six times the Street consensus.

RIM will likely earn $6.16 a share for the year, according to the most recent estimates of 25 analysts polled by Reuters.

Analysts have mostly taken RIM at its word on its revised guidance for the three months to late May, suggesting it will ship 13.5 million BlackBerry smartphones and earn $1.32 a share on revenue of $5.1 billion.

They expect BlackBerry shipments to rise above 14 million in the current quarter and for RIM to earn $1.36 a share on revenue of $5.4 billion.

Gross margins are expected to narrow as the company discounts aging products, while the PlayBook is also assumed to have a higher cost-to-price ratio than its phones.

The more optimistic analysts suggest RIM still has a window of opportunity for its next batch of phones as telecom companies avoid Nokia until its Microsoft partnership starts bearing fruit.

"It is not in the carriers' interest to have an Apple/Android duopoly, and in the short term they have no one else to turn to," Scotia Capital's Gus Papageorgiou said.

"Nokia is out of the game, at least for this year. They (carriers) want these devices to be successful."

($1=$0.97 Canadian)

(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; editing by Frank McGurty and Rob Wilson)

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