Saturday, July 13, 2024

RIM vs. Apple: Can RIM Stay Strong?

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Research In Motion’s Bold 9700 debuted this week and though some industry watchers tout it as the best BlackBerry to date, others are questioning if the new handheld and imminent Storm2 are enough to keep RIM in the running in the smartphone sector.

The Bold 9700 is coming within weeks of both AT&T and T-Mobile releases for $199 after rebates, a significant drop from the original model, the Bold 9000, which cost $299.

RIM’s (NASDAQ: RIMM) 9700 release is widely seen as an effort to shore up the mobile maverick’s top spot in the enterprise — a move attracting some criticism as RIM faces increasing competition on the consumer side from Apple’s ongoing success and Android-powered handsets.

Taken on its own terms, however, as a BlackBerry aimed at professionals, the Bold 9700 impresses and is a good fit for its carrier partners.

While conceding that the Bold 9700 won’t lure consumers away from the iPhone or Android smartphones, Avi Greengart, analyst at Current Analysis, said the new Bold is “the best BlackBerry RIM has ever built.”

“The Bold 9700 adds 1700 MHz HSDPA to a mix that already included 850/1900 (for AT&T’s 3G network) and 2100 (for most international markets); that means that this is the first 3G BlackBerry for T-Mobile USA, and it allows RIM to sell a single SKU around the world,” writes Greengart in a research note.

Beyond benefits to RIM and carriers, there’s plenty to like about the 9700, which runs on the BlackBerry OS 5.0, as it swapped out the trackball from the first version for a trackpad and comes in with a much more compact design, bringing it in line with the Curve and Tour form factors.

In addition to the usual enterprise-friendly features offering push e-mail, Microsoft Exchange support and data security, T-Mobile users will be able to use the Bold 9700 to place calls over Wi-Fi. AT&T’s version includes Wi-Fi but without call support.

Greengart sees RIM leveraging consumer loyalty with the Bold 9700 price point.

“This ($199 price) is a significant price drop relative to the original, but still a premium price compared to the Curve 8900 which offers many of the same features,” he said. “As such, this is really more of an effort for RIM to maintain high margins among existing BlackBerry users; consumers upgrading from a feature phone to their first BlackBerry will more likely gravitate to the Curve line, which starts well below $100,” said Greengart.

Like Greengart, however, other industry watchers agree that while the Bold 9700 will be successful with RIM fans, it fails to offer any compelling reason for consumers to purchase it over recent competitors in the space such as the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre and Android newcomers including the Motorola Cliq and HTC Hero.

RIM versus Apple

William Stofega, analyst at IDC, thinks the hand-wringing is somewhat alarmist.

“I think RIM is doing a decent job. I haven’t crunched all the numbers for Q3, but last time I looked, RIM was still leading Apple in terms marketshare,” Stofega told

IDC’s preliminary mobile phone market data for shipments in the US, from vendor to the channel during the second quarter, show the BlackBerry Curve in the No. 1 spot, followed by the 3GS. The Pearl checks in at No. 3, with the 3G at No.4, and RIM again takes the fifth and sixth rankings with the Bold and Storm family respectively.

Apple just reported its best quarter ever, with a record 7.4 million iPhone sales during the past three months. RIM in September reported during its second fiscal quarter earnings that it shipped approximately 8.3 million BlackBerrys, but still disappointed Wall Street with its outlook for the next period.

He said that while there’s no denying Apple’s success, down the road, the company is still vulnerable in terms of overseas expansion and in the enterprise, compared to RIM.

“The iPhone is a US phenomenon, which is fine, but the story really is how well it will do in the rest of the world. Even with the deals it’s making in China, Apple has its work cut out for them,” said Stofega. “In these emerging markets, price and customization is critical. You can’t just drop an experience that does well in Cupertino in Guangzhou and have it work.”

He also said RIM is still going to grab the majority of IT mobile budgets, despite the iPhone’s strengthened OS and encroachment into the office. “Apple’s just not even close in terms of security, not to say they won’t ever catch up, but you can’t dismiss all the moving parts RIM has going for it in encryption and security, it’s a big deal, and that’s why corporate America still buys BlackBerrys.”

Stofega also adds that he believes workers prefer having a physical keyboard on their handsets, which is lacking on the iPhone models.

Challenges ahead

Enterprise dominance aside, RIM is still aggressively courting consumers. While the professional-use centric Bold 9700 may fail to entice casual shoppers, the imminent release of the Storm2 is a bet to do exactly that.

The touchscreen star of its consumer line up, the Storm2 9550 may be formally unveiled Oct. 28 to arrive on Verizon. Though RIM has not disclosed any details of the new device, it’s been showing it off recently to analysts, including Stofega, who also previewed the Bold 9700.

He says the Storm2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor in terms of user experience and screen technology and should do well.

RIM, and the rest of the industry, also has to play catch-up to Apple’s App Store success.

In terms of mobile apps, which are largely believed to be the long-term driving force in determining any individual handsets success, emerging platforms that will make it easier for developers to create apps across multiple operating systems could help level the playing field, Stofega said.

“Eventually, if more small independent developers can push a button and port their app to all the OSes, they won’t just choose to develop for the iPhone,” he said. “That can help RIM and everybody else. We’ll have to wait and see how that plays out, as well as how the Storm2 does.”

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