By Alastair Sharp
TORONTO (Reuters) - Research In Motion has already doled out a big helping of bad news ahead of its financial results on Thursday, but surprises could still await investors hungry for details about what many see as a new, make-or-break BlackBerry.
Investors are desperate to know whether RIM will stand by its current timetable to switch its smartphones to the new QNX operating system by early next year. The transition is considered the Canadian company's last, best chance to reverse its declining fortunes.
RIM acknowledged two weeks ago it would take a hit on unsold PlayBook tablets and ship fewer smartphones in the current quarter than in the third quarter just ended. That pushed its stock to lows not seen since 2004, and perhaps set a floor for expectations.
"Most of the news is on the tape," said analyst Colin Gillis from BGC Partners, referring to an already-depressed share price, which has fallen 10 percent since the December 2 profit warning and is now down more than 75 percent in the past year.
"The worry with this company is there's more bad news."
RIM has had its fair share this year, including a massive network outage, botched and delayed product launches and a precipitous fall in its share of the U.S. smartphone market as Apple and Google fight for supremacy.
Gillis said he will have a close look at RIM's balance sheet and cash flow this quarter to judge whether the company has the resources to survive the impeding transition to QNX, an unpolished version of which already powers the poor-selling PlayBook.
RIM made its name with secure, reliable communications for the world's business and government elites before branching out into what is now a crowded consumer market.
But the BlackBerry has failed to match the consumer experience provided by Apple's iPhone and a slew of devices using Google's Android operating system, with both rivals offering much more content via third-party applications.
RIM released a batch of improved, touchscreen BlackBerrys early in the third quarter that run on an updated version of its legacy operating system known as BlackBerry 7. Those devices were likely a major contributor to its shipments of 14.1 million units in the period, as the company announced on December 2.
But shipments aren't sales, and the new BlackBerry 7 devices may still be collecting dust on store shelves. RIM's warning that shipments would fall this quarter only cemented that view.
"Our supply chain checks indicate that, while the company's new flagship BlackBerry Bold 9900 is doing well. The rest of its product line appears lackluster," Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said.
Consumers could very well have decided to hold off buying a new BlackBerry until RIM finally releases the models that run on QNX, which RIM believes will change the game in its favor.
But a big question remains - when?
Near the beginning of 2011, the company promised the QNX BlackBerry by early 2012 but has not confirmed or revised that timetable in months. For investors disappointed too often in recent quarters, RIM's reticence has fueled pessimism about whether the company can deliver.
"We believe the situation at RIM continues to deteriorate," Morgan Stanley analyst Ehud Gelblum wrote in a note to clients in which he predicted RIM would ship just 12.2 million phones in the current, fourth quarter.
"With all the turmoil internally ... we suspect it could take well into mid-2012 before RIM launches even the first (QNX)BlackBerry, which is possibly too late," he wrote.
Analysts, on average, expect RIM to post third-quarter earnings of $1.19 a share, excluding the writedowns previously announced. Revenue is expected to come in at $5.27 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Sterne Agee's Wu expects RIM to again slash its earnings outlook for the fiscal year that ends March 29, as it has already discarded two earlier forecasts.
Right now, analysts see full-year profit, excluding one-time items, at $4.46 a share.
That's much less than the $7.50 a share estimate RIM provided at the beginning of the fiscal year. In June it backpedalled and gave a full-year earnings outlook of between $5.25 and $6 a share. Earlier this month it said it no longer expects to reach that range.
The series of profit revisions mirrors the disappointing reality of the PlayBook's sales performance. RIM said last March, a month before it launched the tablet, that it expected to sell millions. So far only about 850,000 have been sold, and the numbers have steadily dwindled since the launch.
(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rob Wilson)