Research In Motion Ltd needs to produce evidence next week that it is close to unveiling a more consumer-friendly BlackBerry experience if it hopes to disarm critics who question its competitive chops.
A growing chorus of analysts say Apple's iPhone, Motorola's Droid and other rival smartphones could keep taking market share from the BlackBerry until RIM delivers an improved operating system and browser.
That has heightened the anticipation surrounding RIM's annual Wireless Enterprise Symposium this year. The event, which runs April 27-29 in Orlando, Florida, is expected to draw thousands of analysts, BlackBerry customers, partners and developers.
Many wonder if RIM is close to taking the wraps off phones that feature what the industry likes to call a compelling, high-end user experience.
Even some devout BlackBerry fans find fault with the look, feel and operation of a device that is built around its email function. Analysts say RIM could sweeten the appeal of its phones by adding multi-touch technology and other intuitive, easy-to-use features that have defined Apple's iPhone.
Should RIM deliver, I think that will put a lot of the naysayers' concern to rest, said Avian Securities analyst Matthew Thornton.
The expectation is that they can't compete at the high end so they're increasingly pushing down price scale to the lower end, and that will run out of room at some point and it'll have implications for profitability.
As RIM faces ever-increasing competition in North America, it has made a concerted push into fast-growth international markets, where its cheaper but still profitable smartphones find favor.
RIM says it is still a contender in the consumer market, but analysts want to hear details about how it plans to win that fight. Its effort to increase the number of apps that run on its phones, for example, is a key part of that strategy and an area where it falls well short of Apple's success.
POSITIVE VIBE BOOSTS STOCK
In the past, RIM used the WES event to show off new products and partnerships, generating a positive vibe that has boosted its stock.
In the past three years, WES has been a positive catalyst for RIM's shares, outpacing both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq by 5 percent plus, said Oppenheimer analyst Ittai Kidron in a note to clients.
RIM co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie heightened expectations recently by promising major product launches in the year ahead. He told analysts on a conference call that if they saw the company's playbook they would be blown away.
Speculation has centered on RIM unveiling several new handsets at the show, most notably the high-end BlackBerry 9670. The device, expected to be shaped like a clamshell, could become the first RIM phone to use the new operating system.
The company may also use the trade show to launch the long-awaited high-end Bold 9650 and lower-end 3G Pearl.
I want to walk away from this event feeling like these guys do have another high-end product cycle that is worth paying attention to, Avian's Thornton said.
This week, respected tech blogger Boy Genius posted screen shots of the 9670 and details of what the blog said was RIM's upcoming operating system. The system got a highly favorable review.
Canaccord Adams analyst Peter Misek said he will look for details on RIM's 2010 growth plan and how it plans to differentiate itself from market-hungry rivals gnawing away at sales.
The Waterloo, Ontario-based company may do this at a full-day analyst meeting on Monday, the day before WES opens.
Evidence of the stiff competition that RIM faces was brought into sharp relief on Tuesday when Apple posted blowout results on the back of record iPhone sales.
By comparison, RIM reported quarterly profit, revenue, and phone shipments March 31 that came in below market expectations, raising concerns about its prospects.
Particularly troubling for RIM investors are Apple's inroads in international markets such as Asia, which is regarded as a key expansion region for RIM.
(Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Galloway)