RIM says BlackBerry subscriptions soaring

RIM said Wednesday that BlackBerry subscriptions are soaring, though quarterly profit may be at the lower end of prior guidance.

Research In Motion raised its forecast for subscriber additions in the current quarter but warned its profit will come in near the bottom of its previous expectations.

New product introductions contributed to record levels of net subscriber-account additions throughout December, as the BlackBerry maker also enjoyed a successful holiday sales surge, the company said. The delayed and hotly anticipated BlackBerry Storm debuted to long lines and sellouts in late November. Following the holidays, new subscriber additions have continued to exceed the company's expectations, though RIM expects the gains to become more normal next month.

On Wednesday, RIM raised its earlier forecast of net subscriber-account additions for the fourth quarter, ending Feb. 28, by 20 percent. On Dec. 18, it had forecast 2.9 million net additions for the quarter. RIM also said it expects revenue for the quarter to be at or near the midpoint of the company's previous guidance. The December forecast called for fourth-quarter revenue between US$3.3 billion and US$3.5 billion.

However, RIM's quarterly earnings per share and gross margin are likely to be at the low end of the range predicted in December, the company said. That range was between US$0.83 and US$0.91 per share, with gross margin between 40 percent and 41 percent. RIM cited changes in product mix, lower inventory in sales channels and a higher ratio of new subscriber sales to upgrades and replacements.

The subscriber growth news came as a rare ray of light in a mobile industry that looks gloomy and uncertain heading into 2009. Overall handset sales plunged 10 percent in the fourth quarter, according to ABI Research. Nokia, the largest mobile-phone maker, said Wednesday it would close an R&D facility and lay off about 320 people from it as a result of falling sales. Nokia sold 15 percent fewer phones in 2008's fourth quarter compared with a year earlier. But major mobile operators have reported subscriber gains and rising revenue from mobile data services.

In addition to making BlackBerry smartphones, RIM provides encrypted push e-mail services through its network operations centers. Last month, the company announced it had sold its 50 millionth BlackBerry. But not all has been rosy lately for the Windsor, Ontario, company. Last week, several RIM executives settled with the Ontario Securities Commission on charges they had engaged in improper backdating of employee stock options. As part of the deal, Co-CEO Jim Balsillie agreed to step down from RIM's board for 12 months. The company is still working on a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Earlier in the month RIM opened its new regional headquarters in Sydney to serve customers in Australia and New Zealand. “RIM has developed a strong operation in Australia over the past six years and this new regional headquarters will help foster our innovation and growth while serving both customers and partners in the region," said Adele Beachley, regional director, Asia Pacific at the opening.

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