Could the RIMM growth slowdown be a bad sign for Apple?
While RIM management tried to paint a bright picture for future quarters, Wall Street surmised that sales growth at the red-hot maker of high-end handsets was flattening out. An equally important question now should be, does the RIM miss foreshadow a whiff by Apple (AAPL) due to slowing iPhone sales?
Such a miss could wallop Apple shares, which have risen dramatically since bottoming out last winter in the $80 range after Steve Jobs left the company to deal with pancreatic cancer. But the RIM earnings call, combined with Apple-centric events, hold out some troubling indications that the iPhone -- and Apple, in general -- could be in for tough sledding in the upcoming quarter.
To put this in context, it's important to understand why Wall Street dropped RIMM so hard. Flatter sales growth is something new to the company, which has been a tech leader for years and played a key role in the recent tech rally. Research in Motion has consistently smashed earnings and unit shipment targets for this year and shareholders have rewarded the company with soaring stock prices. Since bottoming out in March 2009 at $35 per share, RIMM had risen by 154 percent to $88 on September 23. That trajectory beat Apple and virtually all other tech stocks.
The company has also been successfully dispelling the myth that it relied too heavily on business users. Roughly 80 percent of new devices sold in the past quarter were to non-enterprise uses (meaning individuals or small businesses).
Sounds good for Apple, no? Well, maybe not. Buried deep in the earnings call transcripts were some troubling statements about carrier inventory. Traditionally, large wireless carriers build up inventory to sell during the hot and heavy holiday buying season.
This year, according to RIM management, carriers are not building up as much inventory. According to the call transcript posted by investment blog SeekingAlpha, RIM vice president of investor relations Edel Ebbs said, "Channel inventory did come down a little bit in the quarter and we are not really seeing [any indication] that carriers are looking to build and in some cases, some of them are still becoming even more lean."
Why would that be? Perhaps they are forecasting a real decline in demand for smartphones. Remember, AT&T is a big BlackBerry customer. So if they have decided to buy fewer BlackBerries, perhaps they have decided to buy fewer iPhones for their channel, as well.
A few other things could point to a slower quarter for Apple. The release of the iPhone 3Gs last quarter definitely spiked sales. However, as consumers are now taking longer to replace handsets, it's possible the secondary market demand for the 3Gs could fall below that experienced in previous quarters. Additionally, Apple sent sales of its MacBook models soaring with strong upgrades only a month before the quarter ended (I was a victim of one of those upgrades and would have much preferred a 15-inch MacBookPro with 7-hour battery life). The late-quarter spike will likely not be replicated in the current quarter.
This is not related to BlackBerry, per se, but combined with slower iPhone sales it could mean a bigger drag on Apple's numbers. Apple has a history of blowing through numbers quarter after quarter. But no winning streak can last forever. This may finally be the quarter that Apple merely hits numbers. That could hurt shares and pierce the veil of Apple infallibility.
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or follow our green articles twitter feed (@dfgreentech).