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For BlackBerry, It All Comes Down to This

By Tim Brugger - Apr 25, 2013 at 11:35AM

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The latest BB10 smartphone is coming to the mobile device maker's home turf May 1.

Looking back, it's easy to say that BlackBerry (BB 2.71%) should have -- if they could have -- gone to market with its Q10 smartphone first, keyboard and all. The Q10, by most accounts, is a top-flight version of the BlackBerry Bold smartphone, which fans have come to know and love over the years. Results for BlackBerry's first phone running its BB10 OS, the Z10 with its touchscreen, are so-so.

Even with a late rollout, the one million Z10s sold in BlackBerry's recent fiscal Q4 is marginal at best, particularly for a company fighting its way back from obscurity. It needs a home run, not a base hit, which is why BlackBerry's turnaround hinges on the Q10.

The rubber meets the road
According to sources, delays in formatting BlackBerry's new BB10 OS to the Q10's smaller screen took a bit longer than expected, leaving customers with a few choices: Forget the keyboard and grab BlackBerry's Z10 touchscreen smartphone, wait for the Q10, or opt for one of the other smartphone alternatives out there. Problem is, even if BlackBerry fans are waiting on the Q10, the overall market for keyboard phones is shrinking fast.

According to IDC, of the 62.8 million phones with keyboards sold in 2012, BlackBerry garnered 47% of the market: That's the good news. What's discouraging for BlackBerry isn't the market share of its keyboard smartphones, it's how much smaller the overall market has become. The 62.8 million units that the IDC reported sold worldwide in 2012 was down nearly 40% from the 100 million keyboard devices sold the previous year.

Does the Q10 have enough oomph to put an end to the shift toward touchscreen smartphones? We'll know soon enough, as BlackBerry prepares to roll the Q10 out in Canada on May 1, the U.K. shortly thereafter, and in the states within a few weeks.

Not alone
The high-end, keyboard-enabled smartphone market is where the Q10 resides, but it's hardly the only option out there. Samsung, Motorola, and Nokia, among others, offer keyboards with some of their many phone models. Nokia's recently released Asha 210 is a low-priced phone with a keyboard, and HTC is another phone manufacturer fighting for a piece of the declining keyboard phone market.

BlackBerry and Nokia are often mentioned in the same breath, as the once high-flying device makers work to reinvent themselves. A marked advantage that Nokia has over BlackBerry is the ability to continually introduce new devices targeting different price points, markets, and touchscreen or keyboard users. BlackBerry plays strictly in the high-end smartphone niche, competing more directly with industry-leading Apple (AAPL 2.32%) and its iPhone. Making a dent in Apple's smartphone sales – 37.4 million iPhones sold last quarter alone – is a tall order, even as industry pundits bemoan Apple's lack of innovation and declining margins. Despite recent pressures, Apple remains a worthy competitor, and if BlackBerry's going to make a dent, it looks like the Q10 will have to do it.

Going forward
Based on the 6% jump in share price since BlackBerry announced earnings in late March, investors either viewed the one million Z10s sold as a win, or brushed that aside to focus on other news, and there were a lot of positives. BlackBerry's profitable quarter took many by surprise, and word that 55% of Z10 buyers came from other platforms bodes well for both the Z10 and Q10. Gross margins also impressed, jumping to 40.1%, and let's not forget the winning combination of zero long-term debt and BlackBerry's $2.6 billion in cash and equivalents.

The decline in BlackBerry's service subscribers took a bit of the luster off fiscal Q4 results, as did the drop in revenues, sequentially and compared to last year. And with CEO Thorsten Heins' commitment to ramp up marketing costs by as much as 50% this quarter, breaking even will be a challenge.

The challenges facing BlackBerry aren't insurmountable, as last quarter demonstrated. But one million Z10s, limited production time or not, isn't going to get it done. For BlackBerry to become relevant again -- not just stay afloat, but become a genuine threat to companies of the smartphone world like Apple, Google, and Nokia -- it's up to the Q10, keyboard and all.

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