Blackberry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM, RIM.TO) said Thursday after the markets closed that fourth quarter earnings rose 26% from last year, helped by strong sales of its smartphones and early success of its new products. The company's quarterly earnings per share also came in above analysts' expectations. At the same time, the company forecast first quarter earnings above analysts' current consensus estimate, sending its shares up by more than 21% in after hours trading.

The Waterloo, Canada-based company reported net income for the fourth quarter of $518.3 million or $0.90 per share, compared to $412.5 million or $0.72 per share for the year-ago quarter.

On average, 43 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected the company to earn $0.84 per share for the fourth quarter.

Gross margin for the fourth quarter fell to 40.0% from 51.4% a year ago.

Revenue for the fourth quarter jumped 84% to $3.46 billion from $1.88 billion in the same quarter of last year. Forty analysts had a consensus revenue estimate of $3.40 billion for the fourth quarter.

About 83% of revenue came from devices, 12% from service, 2% from software and 3% from other revenue.

Research In Motion shipped about 7.8 million devices in the fourth quarter and about 26 million devices in fiscal 2009. The company shipped its 50 millionth BlackBerry smartphone in January.

The company said about 3.9 million net new BlackBerry subscriber accounts were added in the quarter, taking the total BlackBerry subscriber account base to about 25 million.

We are very pleased to report another record quarter with standout subscriber growth that speaks volumes about the early success and momentum of our new BlackBerry products, said Jim Balsillie, Co-CEO at Research In Motion.

In February, Research In Motion said it expected fourth quarter earnings per share to be at the low end of its previous guidance range of $0.83 to $0.91 per share and revenue to for the quarter to be at or near the mid-point of the previously guided range of $3.30 billion to $3.50 billion. The company expected fourth quarter gross margin to be at the low end of its earlier guidance range of 40% to 41%.

The company said at that time that the new BlackBerry products launched in the third quarter continue to be well received in the market. The company had noted that post-holiday subscriber performance in both North America and international markets has exceeded its earlier expectations.

For the fiscal year ended February 28, 2009, the company reported net income of $1.89 billion or $3.30 per share, compared to $1.29 billion or $2.26 per share for the fiscal year ended March 1, 2008.

Revenue for the fiscal year 2009 surged 84% to $11.07 billion from $6.01 billion last year.

Looking forward to the first quarter, the company expects revenue of $3.3 billion to $3.5 billion and earnings of $0.88 to $0.97 per share. Analysts currently expect the company to earn $0.82 per share on revenue of $3.35 billion for the first quarter.

The company expects first quarter gross margin to be about 43% to 44%. Net subscriber account additions in the first quarter are expected to be between 3.7 million to 3.9 million.

Looking ahead into fiscal 2010, we see exceptional opportunities for RIM and its partners to leverage the investments and success of the past year to continue growing market share and profitability, said Balsillie.

Research In Motion's results and forecast assumes significance at a time when mobile phone sales have been hit hard by a sharp pull back in consumer spending amid the U.S. recession.

Research In Motion's main customers have traditionally been corporate executives, lawyers, politicians and other professionals who use its BlackBerry smartphones to send wireless email securely.

To diversify its user base, the company has brought out multimedia-laden handsets like the Pearl model and the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm.

On Wednesday, the company launched its App World for BlackBerry smartphones. App World, RIM's answer to Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) App Store and Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android Marketplace, will include applications covering entertainment, eBooks, travel, games, news and weather.

Last month, Research In Motion completed acquisition of Canadian data protection software maker Certicom Corp.

Among others in the industry, Treo smartphone maker Palm, Inc. (PALM) last month reported a wider third quarter loss, as revenue dropped 71% due to lower demand for its older smartphones, a challenging economic environment and later-than-expected shipments of its Treo Pro phone in the U.S.

Research In Motion shares closed Thursday's regular trading session on the Nasdaq at $49.09, up $3.47 or 7.61% and gained an additional $10.61 or 21.61% in after hours trading. On the TSX, the company's share closed Thursday at C$60.99, up C$3.29 or 5.70%.

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