Nathan Field: BlackBerry no longer pick of the bunch

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The market share for Blackberry is now about 9 per cent, down from 15 per cent a year earlier. Photo / AP
The market share for Blackberry is now about 9 per cent, down from 15 per cent a year earlier. Photo / AP

BlackBerry ruled, for a time, but then came the iPhone, writes Nathan Field.

Remember 2007? It's hard to believe it was only five years ago.

Bush and Blair were still in power, Reuben Thorne was playing for the All Blacks, and Suzanne Paul won Dancing with the Stars.

These might not be the fondest of memories, but they seem to belong to a simpler time - before the GFC, and tumbling house prices, and Twitter.

In technology years, 2007 seems like a century ago. Back then, the hottest phone was the BlackBerry, designed and manufactured by Canadian company, Research in Motion.

Unlike the current crop of iPhones and Android devices, the BlackBerry was more of an adult's smartphone, popular with bankers and PR bores and trust fund entrepreneurs.

Having a BlackBerry meant you were someone to be reckoned with, and users were not shy of positioning them artfully on restaurant tables, praying for an incoming email to signal their importance.

In 2007, the BlackBerry phenomenon seemed like it was just getting started. The phones became known as CrackBerries, in reference to their addictive nature.

BlackBerry's nearest rival, Palm, was struggling to stay relevant. Countless articles were written about how the little company from Canada was taking over the world.

RIM's stock was in hot demand. BlackBerries were already dominating the corporate market for email-enabled phones, and now they were moving into the consumer space, introducing phones with cameras and music players.

Everybody wanted a piece of RIM, and the share price finished 2007 up 166 per cent.

But while RIM's shares and earnings were riding high, 2007 also marked an event that would ultimately sow the seeds of BlackBerry's fall from grace.

In June, the first iPhone was released.

The world's geeks immediately required a hose down. The iPhone lived up to the hype that had been steadily building over the year.

The design, the display, the swipey pinchy user interface - it was all fresh and sleek and incredibly user friendly. Although there were gripes about the battery life and the virtual keyboard, the first iPhone was undoubtedly revolutionary.

Overnight, it made the BlackBerry look like Gordon Gekko's 1987 shoebox phone.

But while the geeks loved it, grey corporate types didn't share their enthusiasm. There was a view that the iPhone was just a razzle dazzle gadget, and it would never be an option for serious-minded people.

Palm's chief executive at the time said: "The significant hype around the iPhone has an opportunity to impact the category for a little bit. It will subside pretty quickly."

Within two years, the Palm brand was history - bought by the equally troubled Hewlett-Packard in 2010, and discontinued last year.

BlackBerry proved a more resilient competitor, at least in the iPhone's first two years of existence. However, even while RIM was clinging to its customers, it was clear the competitive landscape had changed. A wave of affordable Android smartphones was hitting the market, and each iPhone upgrade was greeted with almost religious fervour.

RIM didn't stand completely still while all this was going on. It developed a new operating system, brought in touchscreens, introduced models with dubious names like Storm and Torch, launched a tablet, and basically ran around trying to copy the best bits from its competitors.

But nothing could alter the fact that BlackBerry was looking old, confused and stubbornly expensive.

BlackBerry's share of the smart phone market is now about 9 per cent, down from almost 15 per cent a year earlier. While it still enjoys pockets of strength and popularity, mainly through its security features, these pockets are dwindling.

Android phones are soaking up low-end demand, while iPhones dominate the high end, leaving BlackBerry in no man's land.

The market has taken the view that RIM's business model is broken beyond repair.

From a high of US$147 a share in 2008, the shares have fallen to just US$13. At first glance, the shares might look attractive to bargain-hunters, given the extent of the price drop and the low single digit earnings multiples.

But RIM is starting to chew through its cash, and if volumes continue to fall as is widely forecast, the margin decline seen in recent quarters could get worse.

Rather than right-sizing its business, RIM seems determined to pursue an expensive, vertically integrated strategy. No wonder investors are afraid to touch the stock. In the absence of a takeover or a surprise cost-cutting push, it's difficult to see where the good news is going to come from.

Last month, RIM's long-standing co-chief executives stepped down, an inevitability given the company has lost 75 per cent of its market cap and missed six out of eight earnings quarters over the past two years.

If the chief executives could turn back the clock to 2007, it's not easy to pinpoint what they could have done differently. Maybe they could have specialised in either software or hardware instead of trying to do both. They definitely could have handled communications better, especially last year when a three-day outage caused outrage among BlackBerry users.

But at the end of the day, there's not much you can do when two competitors with superior technology and deeper pockets (Apple and Google) decide to attack your market. Not all businesses were meant to last, and perhaps management's biggest fault was misguided optimism.

If RIM had recognised the strength of the competition earlier, it could have sold out to a ham-fisted bidder like Hewlett Packard, and advised shareholders to reinvest the proceeds in Apple stock.

Nathan Field is a senior equity analyst at Gareth Morgan Investments. Any opinions expressed in this column are Nathan Field's personal views. These opinions are general in nature and should not be construed, or relied on, as a recommendation to invest in a particular financial product or class of financial products. Readers should seek independent financial advice before making an investment decision.

- NZ Herald

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