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This subscriber loss may haunt RIM in coming months

Updated 10 years ago
Published Dec 20th, 2012 5:51PM EST

RIM’s (RIMM) share price popped by 8% soon after it released its earnings, buoyed by positive sales and earnings surprises. The fact that RIM managed to beat expectations on both fronts is a real achievement. The company has been able to manage the 50% annualized decline in device volume a lot more gracefully than most investors expected. The adjusted EPS loss of $0.22 was much smaller than the $0.36 loss Wall Street expected. However, there is a fly in the ointment the size of a hamster — for the first time ever, the base of BlackBerry subscribers has started shrinking globally. Wall Street expected RIM to add 300,000 new subscribers. Instead, the company lost about a million, with the number of total subscribers dipping from 80 million to 79 million in three months.

The key surprise in RIM’s summer quarter was the company’s ability to expand its subscriber base even as its sales in the United States and the United Kingdom markets tanked. That was one of the factors that underpinned the strong share price rebound during the autumn. And the key surprise in RIM’s November quarter is the new trend of subscriber base decline. What has been crucially important for RIM over the past dark year is the rock solid loyalty of its emerging market customers in South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brazil. Those markets have enabled RIM to beat subscriber base estimates for four quarters running, even as American and British consumers abandoned the brand.

The time when growth in Malaysia and Nigeria was enough to offset the rot in America is over. RIM has been shifting its subscriber base from North America to emerging markets for several quarters – but now growth in Africa and Asia has slowed so much these markets can no longer offset the losses in the US market.  Nokia (NOK) launched a broad range of very cheap Asha QWERTY models in the beginning of 2012 and has been pushing these models aggressively into Africa and Asia over the past two quarters. Samsung (005930) has moved into bargain basement level with its own Android QWERTY devices dropping to the 5,000 rupee level and below in India. This pincer move may have started to take its toll on RIM.

RIM added 2 million subscribers during the August quarter and then lost 1 million in the November quarter. It’s hard to estimate precise rates, because RIM refuses to give out detailed information but this could represent a swing from 9% annualized growth to 4% annualized decline in just three months.

In a couple of months, RIM will launch a new range of Blackberry models with a spanking new OS and appealing revamp of the Blackberry Messenger software. But the first models coming out will be expensive and aimed at business users. The low-end erosion that the autumn subscriber loss indicates may bite deep during the February and May quarters. What RIM really needs badly is a range of appealing new QWERTY devices priced well below $200 in retail. It is not clear when these devices will arrive. Much hinges now on whether RIM has an aggressive low-end strategy in place or whether the company will chase the dream of reconquering its high-end prominence.

Messaging apps like 2go and WhatsApp are growing at breakneck speed in Africa and Asia — they knit together users of various platforms from iOS to Android to S40 to Blackberry. The subscriber contraction of the November quarter indicates that RIM needs to somehow revive the emerging market interest in BBM very soon. The short squeeze that started in October is still driving RIM’s share price higher. But over the coming weeks we may well see investors begin to ponder the year 2013 subscriber trajectory.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.