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BB10 Will Stall — Not Stop — RIMM Bears

With a little more than a week to go before BB10 hits the stores, Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) has become a hot stock again. The company that invented the smartphone might be re-establishing itself as a major player in mobile. Or, we could be watching the biggest dead-cat bounce in history.

As recently as this past September, RIMM was left for dead, trading for barely $6 per share. As this article is going to press, it has nearly tripled from those levels. A rally that large and over that long a stretch cannot be dismissed as short covering. Clearly, a lot of investors believe that the BlackBerry is making a comeback.

We’ll see about that.

If you’re a nimble trader with a short time horizon, RIMM might be worth a gamble. Given the current level of speculation in the stock, there should be some great trading opportunities over the next few weeks, long and short.

But if you’re an investor with a longer time horizon, you should view the rally in RIMM’s shares with a healthy dose of skepticism. RIMM is not Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Any of these tech giants can afford to make a colossal mistake or two or have a new product bomb. Microsoft and Google have both proven this; with the exception of the Android operating system, neither company has come out with a hit product in years, yet both continue to generate gobs of cash. Even the infallible Apple had its Maps public relations disaster last year, yet it hardly slowed the company down.

But RIMM? For the erstwhile mobile leader, BB10 is do or die. If the operating system fails to inspire consumers, the company is finished. This is a binary set of outcomes. Either BB10 is a hit and RIMM matters again, or it is a bomb and it is time to sell off the company’s assets and close up shop.

Given the competitiveness of the smartphone race, no prudent investor would make that bet. But let’s pick apart some of the bullish arguments.

#1: RIMM’s messaging and secure email system is a competitive advantage that keeps customers — and particularly enterprises — loyal.

Wrong. I used to think I would miss my BlackBerry messenger and inbox … right up until I bought an Android.

But beyond this, one anecdotal bit of news late last year made me realize that BlackBerry was finished. Fannie Mae — the quintessential enterprise customer with overzealous security requirements — was allowing their portfolio managers to turn in their company-issued BlackBerries and instead access their company email via their own iPhones and Androids using a custom app.

I had been skeptical that the “bring your own device” trend would ever expand beyond small businesses; big business and government would never tolerate the loss of control or security risks. Well, never say never. When government-sponsored entities allow it, it’s hard to imagine who won’t.

#2: BB10’s new features are a ‘game changer.’

Really? Because everything I see looks a lot like something I’ve seen somewhere else.

The new BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has voice calling, so you can call friends internationally using Wi-Fi or your data plan, not mobile minutes. It seems like I’ve seen this before. Oh yeah, it’s called Skype, and it’s already available on every other mobile platform except the BlackBerry.

Rumor has it that BB10 has the fastest browser. OK. For lack of better information at the moment, I’ll concede that point. But given that mobile devices tend to be app-driven and not browser-driven, that’s a small victory at best.

Rumor also has it that BB10 will have the best auto-correct and word prediction, which are valid selling points for a touchscreen phone. But will that compel a customer to choose a BlackBerry over the newest, snazziest Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) Galaxy? I’m thinking not.

#3: There is huge pent-up demand for the BB10 after months of delays.

This is laughable. Yes, plenty of current BlackBerry users will upgrade. But given the poor experience with the brand in recent years, I don’t see too many former users who defected to the iPhone or Android going back. They’ve moved on, and whatever they found appealing about the BlackBerry ecosystem in the past — such as BBM, which still is the best texting program out there — they have found they can live without.

A related issue here is cost. I was poking around the T-Mobile store a few weeks ago (shopping for a Windows phone, incidentally) when I picked up the current-generation BlackBerry Bold. Buying it outside of contract, it costs more than $600.

Seriously? $600 … for the old, clunky non-BB10 edition? What will a new one cost? For consumers to give BB10 a chance, it will have to be aggressively subsidized and pushed by the carriers. Will they? All major carriers have pledged “support.” We’ll see what that means in practice.

RIMM’s share price is soaring today on comments from CEO Thorsten Heins that the company’s strategic review could include selling off its hardware production or licensing its software. I argued a year ago that RIMM could have a bright future as a services company by building on Mobile Fusion. It could essentially follow the path of IBM (NYSE:IBM) and become a high-end services company rather than a gadget maker.

But a year later, it’s still nothing more than speculation. And with RIMM no longer dictating terms, carriers have started to push back on the licensing fees for BlackBerry Internet Service and Enterprise Server.

And who, pray tell, would buy RIMM’s hardware business? Or more importantly, license BB10 as a manufacturer? Samsung? Nokia (NYSE:NOK)? Probably not; both have made large commitments to Android and Windows.

RIMM doesn’t have a lot of time. It’s bleeding cash, and it isn’t expected to turn a profit this year. For RIMM, BB10 must be a rip-roaring success. Failure means irrelevance and death.

And let’s not forget one last point. RIMM is not really competing with Apple or Google right now. It’s competing with Microsoft to be the third platform.

It is in everyone’s best interest to avoid an Apple-Google duopoly. Consumers, manufacturers and carriers all stand to benefit from more competition. But I’m betting that it is Microsoft that pushes its way in, not Research In Motion. Microsoft is starting with a clean slate and a fine operating system that any manufacturer can license. There is no baggage and no cumbersome technology arrangements (think BIS and BES) with which to contend.

Samsung is set to launch its ATIV Windows phone (essentially a Galaxy that runs Windows instead of Android) in the United States about a week before BB10 hits the market. We’ll see which ends up making a bigger splash.

I wouldn’t be too quick to short RIMM at the moment. It’s simply too hot to touch. But once the new release hype has run its course, RIMM could be an absolute feast for bears.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management.  As of this writing, Sizemore Capital was long MSFT.  Click here to receive his FREE 8-part investing series that will not only show you which sectors will soar but also which stocks will deliver the highest returns. The series starts November 5 and includes a FREE copy of his 2014 Macro Trend Profit Report.

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