Is BlackBerry Back?


This Friday will be a big day for BlackBerry . The troubled smartphone maker is hoping for a renaissance, powered by a variety of new phones running the company's QNX-based BB10 OS. The company's upcoming earnings report will be the second since BlackBerry 10 smartphones started to roll out worldwide. It's also the first report since the launch of the Q10: the first BB10 phone with BlackBerry's signature QWERTY keyboard. The report will therefore provide some insight into the demand for these new models.

The BlackBerry Q10.

The new BlackBerry platform is nowhere near challenging market leaders Apple and Google, but investors hope it will be able to carve out its own niche in the rapidly growing smartphone market. However, observers are sharply divided in their beliefs about just how much traction BlackBerry 10 is gaining. Next week's earnings report and the associated conference call should help a lot in terms of understanding whether BlackBerry can mount a real comeback.

Analysts divided
As my Foolish colleague Tim Brugger recently highlighted, BlackBerry analysts just don't know what to expect from the company. Last Friday, an analyst at Societe Generale upgraded the company, writing that demand for the new BB10 phones has been stronger than expected, and the company could have sold more than 5 million units last quarter. Analysts at RBC and Jefferies are also expecting strong results for the recently ended quarter.

However, there is an even larger pool of analysts who are convinced that BlackBerry is on the brink of collapse. This Wednesday, an analyst at Bernstein Research cut his rating on the stock, arguing that consumer demand for the new BB10 phones has fallen off rapidly. Similarly, longtime BlackBerry bear James Faucette of Pacific Crest opined that the vast majority of BB10 phones being produced are going into inventory, and that global BB10 phone demand is less than 500,000 units per month.

Let's see some numbers
Opinion on Wall Street is thus hopelessly divided. Over the past six months or so, a few analysts have crossed over from the bear camp to the bull camp or vice-versa, but for the most part they have become ever more convinced that their initial beliefs were true. Furthermore, the market is flooded with a variety of rumors about BlackBerry supply and demand. We need more hard data to get a decent sense of the company's chances.

BlackBerry investors should be looking for two things on Friday: a sales number for BlackBerry 10 phones (anything above 4 million is good, while anything under 3 million is bad), and some commentary on sell-through. Sell-through refers to the number of units actually in the hands of users, and thus excludes phones sold to wholesalers and retailers that are still sitting in inventory. Last quarter, CEO Thorsten Heins said that at least two-thirds to three-quarters of the units shipped by BlackBerry had already sold through to end users. That's a very strong figure, and investors need to see whether the company can repeat that performance.

What does it all mean?
Nobody thinks BlackBerry is going to rival Apple or Samsung in terms of shipment volume in the foreseeable future. However, BlackBerry has traded below book value for a long time, which implies that many people still expect the company to go out of business relatively soon. In other words, it's not really fair to compare BlackBerry with Apple, Samsung, and Google for investment purposes. If BlackBerry can carve out a small niche in the smartphone market -- perhaps 5% of the high-end and midrange segments -- investors will be thrilled. Anything beyond that is just icing on the cake.

Realistically, to accomplish this, BlackBerry needs to start by converting most of its existing subscribers to BlackBerry 10 devices. Considering how outdated the legacy BlackBerry OS is, these users ought to be very excited about the opportunity to upgrade to a much snappier BlackBerry phone. If this is true, there should be enough pent-up demand to soak up at least 4 million to 5 million Z10 and Q10 phones for the first several quarters of production.

If BlackBerry was able to ship 5 million BB10 phones last quarter, and three-quarters of them sold through to consumers during the quarter, it would strongly suggest that this "turnaround scenario" is materializing. If shipments or sell-through are notably weaker, it will confirm the bears' fears about BlackBerry getting squeezed out of the smartphone market. For now, investors need to wait and see. Hopefully, BlackBerry's future will become a lot clearer on Friday.

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Fool contributor Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of Apple and BlackBerry and is long January 2014 $13 Calls on BlackBerry. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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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