Anybody familiar with Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM)? That's the Canadian firm that makes Blackberries—those handsets that used to be cool because you could use them to send email, but now seem about as archaic as the Palm Pilot.
RIM has been steadily losing relevance and market share over the past few years as iPhone mania and the rise of the Android operating system have taken hold of the smartphone market. But RIM is not dead yet.
According to market research firm IHS iSuppli, RIM's pending introduction of the Blackberry 10 handset represents RIM's final charge in its struggle to become a viable third smartphone brand behind market leaders Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. IHS said it could also be the final chance for the Blackberry operating system to become a viable No. 3 behind Apple's iOS and Google Inc.'s Android.
"This year we will see multiple attempts to fight the Samsung/Apple smartphone duopoly in smartphone hardware—along with the twin Google/Apple duopoly in smartphone operating systems," said Ian Fogg, senior principal analyst at IHS, in a statement. "Because of the fast-rising adoption of smartphones, 2013 represents the last, best hope for RIM's BlackBerry 10—along with endangered specimens like Microsoft's Windows Phone, Nokia's Lumia and Mozilla's Firefox—to create a viable third smartphone competitor in the market."
Together, Samsung and Apple accounted for close to 50 percent of global smartphone shipments in 2012, according to IHS. Android and iOS collectively held about 90 percent of the smartphone operating system market, IHS said.
At the same time, IHS said, smartphones accounted for nearly 50 percent of all mobile handset shipments last year. By 2016, the firm expects that smartphones will account for nearly 75 percent of all smartphones shipped.
"With smartphones soon to reach their maximum penetration, time is running out for RIM and other Apple/Samsung/Google competitors to stake a claim in the smartphone business," said Wayne Lam, senior analyst for wireless communications at IHS.
RIM is clearly under the gun. But IHS said recent events have opened a window of opportunity for RIM as well as for other potential smartphone competitors.
For example, IHS said, the struggle for traction by Windows Phone is opening opportunities for another player to establish itself. Nokia shipped just 4.4 million Lumia Windows Phones in the fourth quarter and posted poor ASP figures for its Lumia line, IHS said. With the revocation of the payments previously provided by Microsoft, the outlook for Nokia is tougher than ever.
Apple shiped 48 million iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2012. More importantly, according to IHS, Apple has kept the iPhone average selling price (ASP) steady, suggesting that much rumored supply chain issues for the iPhone 5 did not adversely affect its sales.
But IHS points out that Apple has had a few stumbles of late, including the Maps app fiasco. This has created a willingness among Apple friendly consumers to try other products, opening the door for a new competitor to enter the market.
"With the smartphone market maturing and changing, smartphone challengers must adopt differentiated strategies, rather than simply mimic what Apple, Google and Samsung did in the past," Fogg said.
RIM hopes the BlackBerry 10 will offer differentiation in the areas of user interface with one designed to juggle apps, by helping consumers and businesses have content coexisting on the same device, according to IHS. RIM also has created a new smartphone OS focused on delivering a communications experience meaningful to the user and is pursuing a content-based strategy offering songs, television and movies.
At this point, a return to relevance by RIM is hard to imagine. Any firm looking to shake up the status quo in the smartphone market and break the chokehold of Apple, Samsung and Google faces long odds. But stranger things have happened—Apple itself reversed a long downward spiral with the introduction of the iPod in 2001. And the rest is history.