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Forget Q5 and BBM, U.S. is crucial BlackBerry market

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Research in Motion Ltd. made a lot of noise Tuesday, launching a cut-rate version of its BlackBerry 10 phone for emerging markets and making its popular messaging service available for use on Apple iPhones and handsets that use the Android operating system. Investors weren't impressed, judging by the stock's 4 per cent decline that day. There are three good reasons for that.

News of a thinner, cheaper "Q5" phone for emerging markets is a defensible defensive move for BlackBerry. Much of its business now comes from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where its leading market share is at risk from the entry of new, cheaper phones from a range of competitors. But it also begs the question, going forward, What margins can RIM expect from these regions that have provided much of its customer growth? The phones will sell for a fraction of the Q10's $700 price in North America, and rival handsets' prices are heading down as low as $100 (RIM hasn't unveiled its pricing yet). Is it worth it for RIM to defend its market position abroad, given what looks to be a meagre contribution to the bottom line? The company is between a rock and a hard place: defending its high-end, high-cost prestige position leaves it vulnerable as consumer tastes shift, but competing with a cheaper handset puts BlackBerry at risk of being just another phone competing on price, as margins melt away.

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Speaking about the bottom line, the spread of BlackBerry Messenger to other non-RIM devices will help neither the top nor the bottom line, as the company is giving its popular messaging service away for free. Critics say the move is long overdue, as the market is now awash in competing services, while RIM portrays the move as a way to market its wares to non-users. Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Globe's Simon Avery and Iain Marlow that the move could open the door to enhanced mobile advertising revenues someday. Maybe, but for now, it's just giving away something for free, a business strategy that should always be regarded with suspicion until there's proof it leads to real financial rewards.

But the main reason for the stock selloff seems to be that investors remain primarily focused on RIM's rollout plans for RIM's new keyboard-driven Q10 smartphone for the U.S. market. The news on the U.S. front is not terrible, just disappointing. RIM chief executive Thorstein Heins said the Q10 would enter into service in the U.S. in early June, a few weeks later than anticipated. That's when it will be available through U.S. wireless carriers Verizon and T-Mobile, while Sprint Nextel said it would start carrying the Q10 in late summer. Investors were left with "no further comfort into near term sell through trends," Raymond James analyst Steven Li said in a note. Until they have a better handle on customer uptake for the new devices south of the border, everything else is just noise.

Sean Silcoff is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow Sean on Twitter at @seansilcoff.

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More


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