Better Comeback Play: RIM or Nokia?

With this Wednesday's release of the BlackBerry 10, the time has come to decide which is the better comeback play between Research In Motion and Nokia . Where Nokia has been quietly -- maybe too quietly -- building momentum, RIM is going all in with the new release. RIM's stock is up nearly 130% in the last six months, although shedding some heading into Wednesday, and while the immediate reaction may not be the correct one, the BB10 is the ballgame. Each of these companies was once a juggernaut in its own right -- RIM in smartphones and Nokia in the entire mobile device spectrum.

The story is shaping up to be a true "tortoise or the hare" race for third place in the smartphone kingdom, but it is unclear if that assertion proves true or if RIM can rocket ahead and survive. Beyond the drama being staged for Wednesday is the question of which stock makes sound investment sense. Even if RIM has a fighting chance in this race, there is a real argument that it has run too far too fast and is ready for a fall. Let's consider.

Nokia is spreading its wings
Not long ago, Nokia announced that it had sold 4.4 million Lumia smartphones in the quarter, a solid increase from the 2.9 million it sold in the third quarter. The smartphones that run on the Microsoft's Windows platform are a critical product line for both companies. Nokia abandoned its own Symbian OS in favor of the partnership with Microsoft. A solid Windows-based product is a critical part of Microsoft's push back into the limelight.

The sales figures build on the momentum the Lumia line received when China's largest wireless provider adopted the Lumia 920t as one of its flagship offerings. Based on both the signing of this deal and the solid operating results, Nokia has returned to profitability and believes it will stay there for each quarter of 2013 and beyond. It is also seeing the benefits of various cost-cutting measures it has put into place. Overall, the company is back on solid footing and on a trajectory to perform into the future.

RIM's shooting star
If you can forgive the myriad mixed metaphors, the takeaway is that the release of the BB10 is the single most important event for RIM in the foreseeable future. IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said, "This is RIM betting the farm -- it's that big, it's that important." Llamas also noted that CEO Thorsten Hein, who will be introducing the product personally, is essentially betting his entire career on the success of the new device.

The company is coming off of six consecutive quarters of declining sales and falling market share. The positive price action in the stock is largely speculative and appears to be driven by institutional buying. The real concern for the rest of us is that if this turns into another case of "buy the rumor, sell the news," regardless of the reception the BB10 receives, the stock could get hammered. Preparation for such an eventuality may explain the stock's weakness during Monday morning's trading, just ahead of the release.

On the other hand, there are a great many business professionals who are only one or two smartphones away from their last BlackBerry. The challenge that RIM faces is to get those users who once faithfully relied on their BB to even consider a new one when it becomes time to upgrade again. This need is likely central to the company's decision to make a major push into the ad market, including the announcement that it will be running ads during the next Super Bowl.

And the winner is...
There is a strong argument that everyone from consumers to the wireless carriers would like to see a legitimate third option. The combination of high subsidies and sweeping influence would largely be alleviated by the entrance of a legitimate third choice  that the carriers could push in stores. Consumers would benefit because in a duopoly, the players are more interested in beating each other than serving their customers.

While I, as a former BB fan, would love to see the BB10 survive, Nokia feels better positioned at this point on multiple fronts. The Microsoft partnership gives the company a huge amount of support, not just financially but in terms of exposure. The third option must be a legitimate ecosystem provider and the breadth of influence that Microsoft carries is hard to rival, particularly by the beleaguered likes of RIM.

From an investment perspective, there is a serious risk that after RIM's run, the stock may get hammered as shareholders take profit to reduce risk. Nokia has not run as far, but the slow and steady approach of the company and the stock is more appealing for my investment capital. RIM may become interesting again in the future, but as things stand, Nokia is the better rebound play right now. 


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Fool contributor Doug Ehrman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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