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RIM once again ships 7.8m BlackBerries as new iPhone looms

Research in Motion put pressure on Apple Thursday with word that about 7.8 million BlackBerries had shipped during its latest fiscal quarter, again setting a new record —and dismissing the likelihood of new and cheaper iPhones as immediate threats.

The tally for its first quarter of fiscal 2010 is a sharp 44 percent jump from what the Canadian company sold just one year earlier and matches the all-time record for smartphone shipments set just before, in the winter quarter.

Since almost all BlackBerry devices are attached to subscriptions to push e-mail, RIM can also roughly say how many of its customers are new to the platform: just about half of these, at 3.8 million, were first-time subscribers. A small portion use prepaid services instead or else use their own non-push e-mail accounts.

The handset designer's finances were decidedly more mixed. Its net income shot up more than 33 percent year-over-year to $643 million, but its revenue actually dropped very slightly compared to spring 2008, at $3.42 billion. Part of this stems from a lower gross margin —it built in 43.6 percent of headroom on prices versus 50.7 percent last year —but is also blamed on a stronger Canadian dollar.

Like Apple, RIM doesn't break down its shipments by individual model and so wouldn't say how much its only touchscreen phone, the BlackBerry Storm, was adding to existing sales. Most of its phone additions during the March-to-May period were from lower-cost or mid-range phones like the more frugal BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8230, which shipped for Verizon, and AT&T's edition of the BlackBerry Curve 8900.

The future and the impact on the iPhone

For its next quarter, RIM forecasts that it should add as many or more new BlackBerry subscribers as it did now, at between 3.8 million and 4.1 million, and a total of between 8.1 million to 8.7 million. The company in its financial conference call said it would almost certainly sell more during the second half of the year, when back-to-school, back-to-work and holiday sales would all come into play.

Most of its hopes in the short term are pinned on the summer release of the BlackBerry Tour, a "world phone" without a touchscreen that provides 3G on CDMA phone networks in the US and Canada as well as 3G for GSM carriers in Europe.

The predictions potentially spell continued second-place status for Apple. The iPhone maker shipped about 3.8 million iPhones in its last quarter; even with the surge of demand likely to take place with the combination of the iPhone 3G S and a $99 iPhone 3G, analysts expect Apple to ship 5 million iPhones during its quarter ending this month. Apple has already warned that its iPhone 3G S launch is staggered over the course of multiple weeks and begins with just eight countries on Friday where 21 countries had first access to the iPhone 3G in 2008.

And unlike Palm, RIM feels it can shrug off competition from Apple, particularly in the realm of price cuts. During its conference call Thursday evening, the company noted that sub-$100 smartphones were nothing new: the BlackBerry Curve, Pearl and Pearl Flip have all been available for $99 or less and, in some cases, for free. Executives didn't want to rule out Apple as a factor in the long term but admitted it was "kinda early to really tell" what if any impact a $99 iPhone would have. It has, however, found time to disparage the iPhone 3G and argues that the hardware is a rehash.

"iPhone 3G is a year-old product," the company says.