The Future of Blackberry

Ontario. Even though Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry devices, has been undermined by Apple's iPhone and phones using Google's Android software, the exceptional success of its competitors could provide the foundation of its recovery.

Many wireless carriers are starting to feel threatened by the growing prominence of Apple and Google, especially as phones take on a variety of new tasks like replacing credit cards. Nor are the carriers keen about having just two companies controlling a major part of their businesses. As a result, many carriers want a revitalized RIM to serve as a counterbalance, analysts and telecommunications consultants say.

''The carriers are looking for guard dogs to keep Apple down and keep Google down," said John Strand, a telecommunications consultant in Copenhagen, Denmark. "BlackBerry has had very good relationships with carriers."

Peter Rhamey, an analyst who follows North American carriers for BMO Capital Markets, said, "There are a lot of people out there at the carriers who want them to be successful."

Craig McLennan, RIM's regional managing director for North America, said, "Strong carrier partnerships are a strategic priority for RIM, and we think our constructive alignment with carriers will continue to be an advantage as this market grows even larger."

Verizon does not share the dim view many investors now hold of RIM.

“”RIM continues to be a very important strategic partner," said Marni Walden, the chief marketing officer at Verizon Wireless. "We have found RIM to be meaningful in the consumer space and critical in specific enterprise segments."

Michelle Leff Mermelstein, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said the company "has an incredibly strong relationship with RIM."

AT&T, citing company policy of not discussing issues involving suppliers, declined to comment.

While the carriers do not openly talk about the threat of Apple and Google, analysts say the two companies have fostered a system that could make carriers slow-growing utilities selling little more than generic network access. The revenue from apps, which provide entertainment, news and other services, do not flow to the carriers.

In an apparent bid to exploit those concerns, RIM has repeatedly told carriers that, unlike Apple, it believes they deserve a portion of revenues from its apps store and as well as future services — although given the relative paucity of BlackBerry apps, the offer has relatively little financial value as of now.

Keeping the carriers on its side will not solve RIM's problems. But, at the very least, it could provide the company with breathing room until it introduces a revamped product line running on its new operating system. The carriers choose what phones to sell and which ones to heavily market. Because carriers subsidize the price of most handsets in the United States and Canada, their decisions about what phones to support and promote arguably make them the most important force in the market.

Publicly, at least, carriers are reluctant to criticize RIM. Indeed Rob Bruce, the president of the wireless unit at Rogers Communications, Canada's largest carrier, was not willing to even acknowledge that anything was wrong with RIM.

 'They've been incredibly successful, and I don't necessarily think they're going through a bad patch," said Bruce, whose company was the first carrier in the world to offer BlackBerry service. "I just think people's expectations on a company like RIM always run very, very, very far ahead of the realities any of these companies can deliver."

Tellingly, however, the first handsets Rogers will offer for its recently introduced high-speed Long Term Evolution network will use Android and be manufactured by HTC and Samsung, because RIM has yet to introduce a compatible BlackBerry.

Peter Misek, an analyst who follows RIM for Jefferies & Co. in New York, said the relationship between RIM and carriers was entering a critical phase.

''RIM's support, especially in the U.S., has lagged over the last 18 months," he said. "The support of the carriers is tenuous."

RIM, of course, is not the only company hoping that it will become the carriers' new best friend. Nokia, the wireless industry's other humbled giant, is also taking aim at the North American market with a new series of phones using Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system.

As Microsoft struggles to regain its footing in the new wireless marketplace, it appears to have a timing advantage over RIM. Rhamey, the analyst, said that North American carriers would most likely receive early versions of the Nokia-Microsoft phones for evaluation within six to eight weeks.

Although RIM has not provided any specific timelines for its new phones, even test versions appear to be months away. Analysts say RIM cannot afford a mistake at this juncture.

“If they succeed, then the sky's the limit," Strand said. "If they don't, they probably won't have more than one or two years left."


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