The wireless industry is a constantly shifting battleground of ruthless competition, changed allegiances, breathtaking innovation, and unmet expectations. Companies like Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI ) are left for dead one year, only to hit a home run with the first full-featured Android phone, the Droid. AT&T (NYSE: T ) injects new life into its service by signing on with Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) to be the exclusive cellular provider for the groundbreaking iPhone, then winds up taking heat from everyone when its network can't handle the traffic. And then there's Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) .
Eulogy for a failed innovator
So here's the story. This company practically owned its product space. Then other companies started eating into its market share, making strategic acquisitions to improve the quality of their own products. Doubts began to surface about the company's moat. Innovative new competing products promised similar functionality coupled with applications the company couldn't offer. It promised to roll out a killer product that would marry the best of its technology with the new competition, and when the product was finally released, it was a huge disappointment. The company's stock price never recovered, and annual revenues dropped each year from 2008 to 2010.
Wait, you say, Research In Motion's revenues are rising, not falling! That's because the story I just told is about Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) . Just plug these items into the story: TomTom outbidding Garmin for Tele Atlas and producing an iPhone navigation app; Verizon launching the VZ Navigator service on a phone platform that also supports music, text, email, and video; and Garmin's Nuvifone flop. All of that happened before the first Android became a dominant operating system offering free navigation features.
Deer in the headlights
Garmin's failure is a cautionary tale for Research In Motion. Certainly, the BlackBerry maker deserves credit for bringing mobile email to the enterprise. Nobody does it better or has a larger global footprint. But RIM may have underestimated how powerful four little words could be to consumers: "Sent from my iPhone." BlackBerrys are functional but hardly sexy. iPhones and iPads do email elegantly, along with everything else. Phones and tablets that use the Android platform are tightly integrated with Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Gmail service. So much for the moat?
No wonder, then, that RIM jumped quickly on the tablet bandwagon. Its first tablet, the PlayBook, was released in April. Reviewers were not impressed: It uses a proprietary OS, has navigation controls different from other tablets and previous BlackBerry devices, and cannot do email unless it is near a BlackBerry phone or on Wi-Fi. Sales have been lackluster, although one could say that about any tablet that doesn't have an Apple logo. RIM's stock recently hit a multiyear low.
What doesn't kill you will make you stronger
What is happening now is a true technology shift from phones with advanced functions to portable computing devices that include phone features. Research In Motion has a window of opportunity, right now, to adjust its product strategy and survive. If it can smoothly and quickly integrate BlackBerry email service with an Android- or iPhone-like user experience, its corporate customers will stay on board. It could even develop a full-featured "BlackBerry app" for Android and iOS and get out of the hardware business. RIM has an enviable loyal customer base and its revenues are still growing, if more slowly than three or four years ago. It has no debt, 33% free cash flow growth, and a trailing P/E of 6.9 and the stock looks like a no-brainer for the long-term investor. But, those are all things that were said about Garmin before it began its slide, and Research In Motion owes it to its shareholders and customers to aggressively adapt to the new wireless landscape.