RIM Earnings Are the Season's New Ugly

Last Updated Jun 16, 2011 6:11 PM EDT

For the first time in at least the last four years, Research in Motion (RIMM) saw a significant quarter-to-quarter drop in unit sales of its flagship BlackBerry smartphone. Even though the company had telegraphed how badly it was about to do, the numbers were sobering.

Sales of 500,000 BlackBerry Playbook tablets couldn't put a shine on a truly ugly period that saw a sequential quarterly revenue drop of 12 percent. The earnings results show just how badly the long-time category power has stumbled and how Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have feasted on its target markets, particularly in North America. RIM's products are aging and consumers focus on the cheaper models, which further indicates that it has lost buyer appeal. And yet, the co-CEOs argue that leadership should continue as it has.

To better see exactly what last quarter looked like for the BlackBerry, here's a graph I put together from previous RIM earnings releases, showing unit movement since the first quarter of the company's fiscal year 2008:

Last quarter saw a sequential quarter 11.4 percent unit drop. That's not as bad as the 19 percent consecutive quarter smartphone drop that Nokia saw, but that's like saying having both your legs broken is worse than only one. You're still in trouble in either case.

And it's only going to get worse, as the company set a unit outlook for next quarter of 11 million to 12.5 million BlackBerrys. This is a dying product line -- and the new smartphone platform isn't due out until next year.

Co-CEO Jim Balsillie talked out of both sides of his mouth about the tablet, admitting at one point that the PlayBook was not doing as well as the company would like and then later, answering an analyst's question, saying that they didn't have figures for sell-through of the tablet to consumers. That seems extremely unlikely, given that it's a type of figure RIM pays close attention to with the BlackBerry and that Balsillie regularly addresses during earnings calls.

The desperation was almost palpable, as Balsillie talked about the tablet as being a "superior publishing framework for content creators," when all the publishers, studios, and labels keep looking at Apple. Unfortunately for the company, he and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis both sounded a tone of status quo. They invoked their enterprise mantra, which won't bring the magic that Steve Jobs can conjure.

Balsillie and Lazaridis essentially gave one excuse after another for the company's repeated stumbles over the last few years. They also said that they had no intention of changing the co-CEO structure because, in their minds, no one could do the job any better. So they won't be going anywhere, even though the company plans on a restructuring ... oh, sorry. "Streamlining."

The often prickly Lazaridis said that "strong, consistent leadership is critical." That's the problem. What RIM needs is business as not usual.


Image: Flickr user langleyo, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.