RIM's Q3 Financials: A Tale of Two BlackBerries

People have been asking for my take on RIM's latest quarterly earnings, which were reported last week (link).  The short answer is that I am both less worried and more worried than I was before.  I am less worried because the company has more strength than I realized internationally, and I am more worried because the situation in North America is worse than I thought.

Before I get into my comments, I should point out that I don't think you can use a single quarter to declare a company either dead or saved, especially when it's as big and prominent as RIM.  In the last couple of years, attitudes toward RIM have gone through a couple of cycles in which negative coverage about the company builds up, the company has a good quarter, and the coverage dies down for a while again.  I think it's more useful to look beyond the individual quarters and try to see the long term trends.

In that spirit, I think RIM's earnings were good, but I was more interested in the things management said about moving toward new products and services, and by the very rapid changes happening in RIM's international sales.  Overall, I wouldn't say the company is out of the woods at all, and 2011 will be a decisive test of its viability.  Here's an overview of the earnings, followed by some comments on international and the new products.

Updating the charts

I plugged the latest numbers into the charts from my post on RIM in October (link).  They generally look like good news:

Total BlackBerry Subscribers

(Quarters are RIM fiscal quarters)

Continued nice growth.  But we'll come back to this one in a minute.

Net New Subscribers Per Quarter

This one is encouraging: additions went up compared to the quarter before.  But it's only one quarter; over the year, the rate of additions is flat.  Watch the next several quarters to see if there is a trend.

New Subscribers Per Unit Sold

Continuing to decline.  If you're looking for bad news on RIM, this is probably the chart you focus on. 

Device Gross Margins

Good news, they were stable for the quarter.  This is another statistic where you want to look at the trend rather than just a quarter's results.  And the trend for the last year looks stable, which ain't bad.  (Remember, I have to estimate this number because RIM doesn't report device gross margins separately.) 

Device Average Selling Price

Also stable for the last couple of quarters.  Good news.

Service Revenue Per User

 (Dollars per quarter.)  

I didn't chart this one last time, but it's interesting.  RIM currently gets about $15 in service fees per quarter per BlackBerry subscriber.  That's the money operators pay to RIM per user for the email service.  This revenue has been declining slowly but steadily for years, and I don't completely understand why.  RIM says it's due in part to a shift toward prepaid customers, which would fit with the international growth they're seeing.  But I wonder if also the operators are becoming less willing to share revenue with RIM.  Anyway, I think it's a warning sign -- as your market matures you want to find ways to make more money per user, not less.

Adding up all of the results, it looks like a very nice quarter.  But remember, one of my main points was that good short-term numbers can mask long-term problems.  And in this case, the way RIM reports its numbers hides some challenges.

Looking ahead: A Tale of Two BlackBerries

Two issues really stuck out to me as I looked at the RIM announcement: International sales, and the comments by RIM's management.

In the post I wrote in October, I missed the importance of RIM's international growth.  It was a significant oversight.  Several people, starting with mobile analyst Dean Bubley (link), pointed out in comments on my blog that BlackBerry has become very popular among young people in many parts of Europe and elsewhere as a messaging phone.  RIM also claims it is the number one smartphone platform in Latin America.  Its appeal was explained by analyst Horace Deidu, who notes that the BlackBerry Messenger app is more attractive than generic texting because it's free, and because you can see when your messages have been read (link).

Deidu looked at RIM's most recent quarterly financials, and concluded that RIM's revenues had actually declined in North America, a fact masked by the company's rapid growth in other parts of the world (link).  That surprised me, because it wasn't featured prominently in most of the reports on RIM's quarter.  It was also pretty alarming.  All of the charts above look relatively reassuring, but they're a blend of the international business and the North American one.  Since the signs of an impending platform collapse are subtle (something I explained in my October post), it's possible that the international growth is disguising big warning signs in North America.

Unfortunately, RIM doesn't report early indicators like gross margin by region, so I had to look for whatever data I could find.  I managed to dig out the numbers on the RIM subscriber base in North America vs. elsewhere.  RIM doesn't report this directly, but you can calculate it from the quarterly reports.  Here's what I found:

BlackBerry Subscribers
Total subscribers in millions

About half of RIM's subscribers are now outside North America (the crossover will probably happen this quarter).  Growth in North America looks pretty slow.  Here's what the subscriber growth rate looks like:

Quarterly Growth in Subscribers
Percent growth from quarter before

The BlackBerry subscriber base outside of North America has grown rapidly, increasing 15%-25% every quarter for the last three and a half years.  North American growth was also strong until about 18 months ago (the second quarter of FY 2010), when growth softened.  In the last two quarters, subscriber growth in North America dropped to almost zero. 

Yikes.  That sure smells like market saturation to me, and the process is a lot further along than I thought.

(Note: I had to interpolate the numbers for a few quarters in fiscal 2008 and 2009, because RIM didn't report them every quarter.)

So at the risk of oversimplifying a bit, the data and the anecdotes from around the world paint a picture of two RIMs: A consumer messaging phone company that has tapped into a new demographic and is growing fast in various parts of the world outside North America, and a prosumer e-mail phone company that has hit the wall in North America and needs very badly to re-ignite its growth through new products and services.  It is the best of times, it is the...oh, you get the idea.

This explains a lot of the confusion we're seeing in attitudes toward RIM online.  Like blind men feeling the elephant, we see the RIM that's in front of us -- either the consumer RIM that's growing well, or the prosumer RIM that has stalled out.  Who's seeing the real RIM?  We all are.  The phone market is heavily segmented, and it's common for a company to do well in one region and poorly in another (just look at Nokia).

I have to give a lot of credit to the folks at RIM for managing to crank up the growth internationally just as its North American business faltered.  I don't know if they were lucky or good, but it's a very hard balance to hit.  On the other hand, I don't think RIM is doing any favors to investors by playing down the regional data in its financial reports.  That creates a lot of confusion.

What it means for RIM.  It looks like the North American business may be closer to a platform collapse than I realized.  I think urgent action is needed to keep the company's North American users loyal.  The silver lining in that dark cloud is that RIM's growth in other regions can help fund the changes needed.  But time is short, and I still worry about RIM's ability to quickly focus on new differentiators and create compelling user experiences.

There's another path RIM could choose to follow -- it could milk its North American prosumer base for profits while accelerating its growth with young people overseas.  But if you can trust the comments of RIM's execs, that is not their direction.  They seem to believe they are on the verge of succeeding everywhere, in all segments.  RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie was effusive when he took questions in RIM's recent quarterly conference call (you can read a transcript here). 

His message boils down to this:
     --PlayBook will be a huge hit.
     --The new QNX operating system is great.
     --Unlike other companies (Apple and Google), RIM will work in cooperation with mobile operators, content providers, and banks to produce services for customers.  RIM will not bypass them, so they will steer customers to RIM.
     --Don't worry about the iPhone and Android app base, because mobile applications written to a particular OS will become less important in the near future, as users and developers look to support web standards and intermediate development platforms like Flash.
     --RIM provides the sort of reliability and security that enterprises want, so it will be the leading B2B mobile provider.
     --RIM is growing very fast, and has a lot of plans for 2011 that have not been fully revealed yet.  Adding these all together, the company has tremendous opportunities in the coming year.

I was surprised by how relentlessly upbeat Balsillie's comments were -- most CEOs usually hedge their statements to avoid saying something that could be quoted in a shareholder lawsuit.  Balsillie sounds like he's either extremely optimistic or extremely anxious to convince people not to write his company off.  But I checked some of the previous calls, and it turns out he's always like that. 

It's important that you understand the breadth and depth of RIM's ambition, so here are extended excerpts from his comments:

"We have real differentiation and we have real opportunities for extension of the business in a whole bunch of ways. I mean, just the pent-up interest in the PlayBook is really overwhelming, and then you know the whole aspects of carrier billing and value-added services -- you're just going to see a litany of things happening in that area, both for the BlackBerry tablet and the BlackBerry smartphone over the year....

"We're laying in the pieces here to sustain really exciting growth for a long, long, long time....we'll have some pretty pleasant surprises in what we're doing throughout the calendar 2011....

"We're selling lots...We have good products. Our engagement is good. I feel very, very good about U.S. I mean, we're meeting with the guys that run all the carriers, we've got plans, our carrier partners are in place. There is a real desire to do a lot of things and a lot of these things are locked in and new things are being planned....

"I feel great about where we're sitting for 2011 in the carriers in North America, and we've held our base and we've had growth in shipment and we've had okay net adds, but we're positioned to grow very, very strong. We've really knocked the cover off the ball in so many other markets around the world and yet our penetration in those are still very, very modest....We fell very, very good about the future....

"The product roadmap looks great and the application extension B2B and B2C is so strong.... You're going to see a lot of the stuff come out, really over the next month. So it should be very, very interesting....

"The interest in PlayBook in the B2B is uniformly strong....I can't think of an account that isn't just beating down to get units....Overwhelming interest and overwhelming pressure to get units are a pretty fair characterization. So we're very confident just what it's going to do for businesses....

"The core essence of the business is still just moving along so well and growing so fast. So if you layer in this tablet category, and then you layer in advanced services strategies and then you layer in leapfrog future-proved architectures, I feel very, very good about where we are in the U.S. I feel very good about where we are around the world.... Do I think we're in a position to really take where we are and extend it further in a sustained basis in the U.S. and abroad?  In my view, without a doubt....Just watch the year unfold and watch 2011 unfold and you should know. I'm fine just letting the proof being in the deliverables. We do keep delivering and we're going to keep delivering, so we're just going to keep it up....

"I think the PlayBook redefines what a tablet should do. I think we've articulated some elements of it and I think this idea of a proprietary SDK and unnecessary apps -- though there is a huge role for apps, I think it's going to shift in the market and I think it's going to shift very, very quickly and I think there's going to be a strong appetite for web fidelity and tool familiarity. And I think there's going to be a rapid desire for high performance, and I think we are way ahead on that. I think, CIO friendliness is...we are way ahead on that....So I think the PlayBook clearly sets the bar way higher on performance and you're going to see more. I think the enterprise stuff, we're seriously extending. I think the BlackBerry is still number one in social collaboration. And I think with the PlayBook and that environment we're going to set the new standard on performance and tools, very powerful tools and we're growing very, very fast."

This is called tying yourself to the mast. 

Maybe Balsillie is right.  Maybe RIM's on the verge of enormous opportunity and explosive growth.  I hope it is (seriously; I like RIM and I'd like it to succeed).  But RIM is fighting on an enormous number of fronts, and that scares me for a company that has problems creating high-quality knockout products and is transitioning to a new operating system.  The effect could be like flooring the gas in a car with a bad transmission -- you might get a surge of power, or you might leave half the engine on the highway.  Restoring momentum to a stalled-out platform is a very difficult task, and it rarely goes smoothly, or succeeds in a single year.  With all the hype the company is putting into PlayBook and the rest of its strategy, anything less than stellar success in all regions and all product lines in 2011 is going to be seen as a big disappointment.  And that sort of disappointment could be the signal that causes users to turn away from its platform in North America.

As I said two months ago, I think RIM's future depends on its ability to focus, differentiate, and execute.  I think the latest earnings just reinforce that.

[Note:  This post was revised Dec. 22 to add a paragraph and clarify some explanations.]