Consider BlackBerry developer Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM): Is it in a death spiral or is it a tarnished diamond that with better management can be revived for a bright future?
Right now, nobody knows. On Tuesday, the company is scheduled to conduct its 2012 annual meeting on its premises in Waterloo, Ontario. That will be the first time for new chairman Barbara Symiest, 56, the former head of strategy, treasury and corporate services at Royal Bank of Canada (NYSE: RY) to preside.
Investors will be watching new CEO Thorsten Heins, 54, a former executive with Germany's Siemens Group (NYSE: SI) who's been in place only six months.
Heins has a thankless job. Despite a surge last week, RIM shares are still down 71 percent for the last year. The whole company now is valued at only around $4.18 billion.
Rivals in the smartphone business -- headed by South Korea's Samsung Electronics (Seoul: 005930); Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), the world's most valuable technology company, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), the No. 1 search engine -- are rolling up big profits and are in the tablet sector, where RIM has a weak entry, the BlackBerry Playbook.
RIM, by contrast, is bleeding red ink. For the year ended March 3, net income plunged 66 percent to $1.64 billion, or $2.22 a share, as revenue slid 7.4 percent to $18.4 billion.
In the first quarter, the net loss was $518 million, or 99 cents a share, reversing prior-year net income of $695 million, or $1.33 a share. Revenue plunged 43 percent to $2.8 billion.
Heins also took a huge fourth-quarter after-tax charge of $543 million to write down goodwill and unsold inventory.
So why would anyone pay $8.10 for a share of RIM?
Here are three good reasons:
Cash and investments: RIM is by no means broke. Cash and investments were $2.2 billion last month, plenty to fund new products. Cash flow in the first quarter was $710 million.
Nearly 80 million customers. While they range from customers like President Barack Obama to ordinary folk in Indonesia, they're a force to be reckoned with. Remember the crackberry? These are consumers, many in the executive class, who are addicted to email as well as portable telephony.
This base is somewhat sticky, although there's been enormous erosion in the consumer market in the five years since Apple introduced the iPhone. But given a new BlackBerry 10 phone, they may stick around another nine months before it comes out.
Patents and intellectual property. With 3,557 patents including 3,348 active U.S. applications, the portfolio is likely valued between $2 billion and $4 billion, said Chris Marlett, CEO of MDB Capital, an IP specialist in Santa Monica, Calif.
Mobile patents are very desirable right now, he said. If RIM were to auction some or all, there could be a bidding war between Google, Apple and Microsoft.
Considering what many people are spending now on telecom, Marlett added, some people are spending more on mobile communications than gas for their cars.
Canadian investor Victor Alboini, a major RIM shareholder, has been calling for either patent licensing or auctions for months as a way to boost value.
Indeed, IP bankers like Marlett suggested RIM could generate valuable revenue from either approach.
That's the half-full scenario. Heins may enlighten customers about what his paid advisers, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) and Royal Bank, suggest he do to stanch the blood.
What's the half-empty outlook?
RIM can't sell enough old BlackBerrys and Playbooks to generate enough cash flow. Customers switch.
Incidents like last October's service outage that affected millions could recur.
The software for BlackBerry 10 doesn't work.
As part of slashing nearly two-thirds of RIM's workforce, Heins slices brains and muscle as well as fat. Morale could plunge among the remaining developers.
Other companies have survived crises before: International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM); Apple and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), the No. 3 PC maker. With new management, charges and cuts, they adopted a new focus and got back to work.
RIM's jury -- the public -- will deliver the verdict.