RIM is a pony that needs to find another trick

At first glance, everything looked peachy keen in Research In Motion’s quarterly results, released late on Thursday. The handheld device maker came in right on estimates with a 5-cent-per-share profit and revenue more than doubled over the same quarter last year. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, for starters, the profit wasn’t really a profit on the BlackBerry pagers that everyone is so in love with — and there are some other warning signals lurking around the edges of RIM’s results. It’s possible that investors don’t care whether RIM made any money selling its two-way pagers and a hybrid pager and Palm-style handheld in one.

Those who pushed the company’s stock price up by more than 7 per cent after the results came out didn’t seem to mind that the firm actually rang up an operating loss of more than $3-million and only made it into the black with the help of more than $9-million worth of gains on RIM’s investments.

Investors’ complacency aside, however, it’s important to note that RIM’s core business is still a money-loser — in fact, operating losses were up more than 40 per cent. Although the company’s revenue rose, expenses also increased at a pretty rapid clip: While sales were substantially higher than the same quarter last year, the company’s cost of sales more than tripled, with research and development expenses tripling and marketing and administration expenses doubling.

Gross profit margins fell to 38 per cent from 44 per cent and the company shipped about 25 per cent fewer units than it did in the previous quarter.

There are larger issues for RIM, however. For example, now that everyone is familiar with its “killer app” — always-on e-mail service — because of the publicity about all the high-tech CEOs who use a BlackBerry, what does RIM do for an encore? And how does it do so without eating into the business model that has convinced investors to pay almost 100 times forecasted earnings for the stock?

Those kinds of multiples are as rare as hen’s teeth nowadays, and it’s not clear what RIM has that justifies such a premium. Palm used to command that kind of multiple, too, back in the old days, but the handheld device maker is only valued at 1.5 times revenues now (it has no earnings), while RIM is still trading at more than eight times its revenue.

And in a jab at the Canadian company’s perceived dominance of the wireless e-mail-access game, a Palm executive said this week that Palm’s wireless Palm VII — which can access the Internet using a number of different networks — has more users than RIM does.

Users agree that RIM is far more elegant and efficient an e-mail solution, but for how much longer?

Wireless access is the Holy Grail for handhelds, and both Palm and the various PDAs that use Microsoft’s Pocket PC software (such as Compaq’s iPaq) are rolling out wireless e-mail and Internet access plug-ins or software that will make them far more competitive with RIM.

Rogers AT&T Wireless and Microcell’s Fido are both introducing next-generation GPRS (global packet radio system) high-speed digital networks, which will allow handhelds or telephones to access e-mail and the Internet at faster speeds.

RIM is working on a GPRS model, too, but it will be entering a fairly crowded field.

RIM executives have said they are working with Compaq and others to develop BlackBerry-style “solutions” that could be used to provide the same kind of always-on e-mail for the iPaq or other Pocket PC handhelds, and RIM also has a prototype of a BlackBerry-type unit that runs on Java software — the idea being that it could partner with some of the cellphone handset makers on a combined BlackBerry phone running Java.

The problem with these options, however, is that making a two-way pager that plugs into an iPaq or helping to make a BlackBerry Java phone would eat away at what RIM is: a proprietary handheld device maker with a unique e-mail solution.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: When always-on e-mail was unique to RIM, it stood out as a result — but when other players with more to offer and deeper pockets also have that capability, what will RIM have left that makes it worth the kind of premium it’s getting now?