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BlackBerry maker downgraded in light of blistering iPhone sales

Although it believes Research In Motion's dominance of the enterprise market remains secure for the time being, Needham & Co. downgraded shares of the BlackBerry maker this week, explaining that the same cannot be said for its primary growth driver of the past two years —the consumer market.

In a report sent to clients Wednesday, the investment bank cited metrics reported by RIM each quarter which show its subscriber additions in the enterprise market to have increased 28 percent in fiscal 2008, and 31 percent in the first fiscal quarter of 2009. At the same time, however, the company's additions in the consumer segment grew nearly 300 percent and 174 percent, respectively.

Analyst Charlie Wolf explained that much of this success has come as a result of the firm's consumer-oriented BlackBerry Pearl, which was met with a paucity of competitive offerings from other smartphone manufacturers for the past seven quarters.

Although rival vendors such as Motorola, Samsung and HTC each took a stab at the Pearl's core market segment, the offerings from those companies relied on the "justifiably maligned Windows Mobile operating system" which has proven to be anything but user-friendly.

"But the days of no competition are over," Wolf told clients. "They ended with Apple’s July 11th launch of the iPhone 3G. [...] Apple announced that it sold over one million phones in just three days, [and] our checks indicate that demand has continued almost unabated since then."

Key to Apple's assault on RIM's turf are two key moves, according to the analyst. First, the iPhone maker has drawn up plans to expand distribution from just a handful of countries to approximately 70 by the end of the year. Secondly, and most critically, it's built a massive developer community that has produced around a thousand native applications in just under four months.

It's that software front, Wolf argues, that's destined to emerge as the "next battleground" in the smartphone market. RIM's "primitive" Java development tools have "no hope of catching" up with Apple's powerful and easy-to-use iPhone SDK, he says.

BlackBerry Bold

BlackBerry Bold, due some time in the third quarter.

Still, the analyst points out that RIM holds ambitions of fighting back "or at least attempting to." Earlier this Spring it announced the BlackBerry Bold and will launch the iPhone look-alike BlackBerry Thunder later this summer.

"In our opinion, the Bold is not even on the iPhone’s radar screen," he said. "Thunder should be. But what distinguishes the iPhone is not its pretty face. It’s the superb integration of hardware and Apple’s OS 10 operating system that makes the device one of a kind."

BlackBerry Thunder

BlackBerry Thunder, due some time in October. | Source:

Those comparisons aside, Wolf acknowledged the view of some industry watchers, who argue that Apple and RIM aren't necessarily engaged in a winner-take-all battle. With the smartphone market having posted more than 50 percent growth in 2007, it's conceivable that several firms could come out winners in the end.

"At the same time, it has quickly become obvious that the iPhone is bound to slow the red-hot growth of Blackberry Pearl and RIM’s new consumer-oriented entries," he said. "That’s why we’re downgrading RIM from a hold to an underperform rating."