2012: End of the Mayan Calendar -- and Maybe RIM Too

Next year will be decisive for the "tier two" smartphone players: RIM, Nokia and Windows Phone. Specifically, if Windows and Nokia haven't gained meaningful traction a year from now their mutual strategy will largely be deemed a failure. And RIM has become a long, slow train wreck without much turnaround potential.

During the most recent quarter the company reported that it sold many millions of handsets outside the US market: "RIM shipped approximately 14.1 million BlackBerry smartphones and approximately 150,000 BlackBerry PlayBook tablets." RIM also claims 75 million users around the world.

Blackberry phones The company slightly beat lowered analyst estimates but further lowered guidance for Q4 (a quarter when Android and iPhones are doing very well). It also said that its BlackBerry (OS) 10 smartphones won't be out until “the latter part" of next year (read early Q4). Investors promptly sold RIM, causing the stock to decline to its lowest point since 2004. 

But RIM's shares have bounced back somewhat on talk that there were several suitors circling the company: Amazon, Microsoft and/or Nokia. However Amazon publicly disavowed the rumor.

It would be problematic for Nokia to buy RIM for several reasons. While the Finnish company would gain a stronger brand in North America and carrier relationships the value of RIM's brand is rapidly declining and its other assets are of limited value to Nokia. Similarly Microsoft would inherent a troubled company and put itself in a competitive position vis-a-vis handset partners including Nokia. 

But would Microsoft be all but compelled to buy RIM if its current relationship with Nokia doesn't bear fruit?

Early reports from Europe in October suggested that the new Windows powered Lumia phones were selling quite well in the UK and Germany. However a more recent UK report argues that the Lumia 800 is not selling and represents only 0.17% of November handset sales in the UK. 

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: sales are mixed; not as successful as Nokia and Microsoft would have hoped but better than the dire scenario presented above. Lumia phones are coming to the US early next year. However it will take a herculean effort to get consumers to turn away from Android and iPhones (though some survey evidence suggests many US consumers are open to Windows Phones). 

My prediction is that a year from now Nokia and Microsoft will have improved their respective positions somewhat but not dramatically. Nokia will be compelled to consider building a few Android handsets and Microsoft might have to look again at RIM as a way to gain market share. For its part, RIM will have to look at developing Android handsets itself (and perhaps experimenting with WebOS) to supplement BlackBerry 10. 

Regardless, the outlook for RIM is fairly bleak. In the end the company will probably have to sell itself. And at the moment the outlook for Nokia and Microsoft's Lumia phones is not terribly much brighter (at least from what we can tell at this point).