The case against Research In Motion ( RIMM) focuses on two threats to the company: competition and a long-running patent dispute. While the BlackBerry maker has suffered a
string of setbacks on the legal front, the competitive threat hasn't amounted to much so far. But that might be changing. On Wednesday, Nokia ( NOK) announced plans to purchase Intellisync ( SYNC), a wireless software company. The move unites the world's biggest handset maker with one of the leading second-tier players in the market to deliver email, applications and other data to mobile devices. But the acquisition is only the latest in a series of moves by RIM's rivals that could call into question the company's continued dominance in wireless email, all of which signal that RIM's business will soon be commoditized, says Dave Schamens, a partner at Invictus Funds. "There's no question that RIM has got a great product, but these other guys are chomping at the bit to bypass RIM's monopoly," he says. Whether Microsoft ( MSFT), Palm ( PALM), Intellisync, Nokia or someone else is the winner is unclear, but "RIM is going down no matter what," adds Schamens, whose firm is long Microsoft but has no other positions in the space. Investors as a whole seemed to express similar feelings doubts after Nokia's announcement. RIM's shares closed Wednesday off $2.82, or 4%, to $64.68. The deal is targeted at enterprise and other business customers, Nokia said in a statement, and the acquisition will potentially allow it to deliver email and other data to a range of devices -- both those made by the company and those made by rivals such as Palm or Motorola ( MOT). Intellisync is just one company that's been trying to edge into RIM's turf. On the software side, giants such as Microsoft and Novell ( NOVL) and smaller companies such as privately held Good Technology and Seven offer wireless email services. On the hardware side, most of the major vendors -- in addition to Nokia -- have come out with devices that can tap into corporate email servers.
To date, RIM has dominated the industry, both in software and hardware. But the competition seems to have stepped up in recent months with a string of moves by its rivals. In September, for instance, Nokia debuted a new wireless email service targeted at business customers. Microsoft recently rolled out an update to its popular Exchange email server that allows the software to "push" email to customers' wireless devices. And in September, Palm, maker of the trendy Treo smartphone, announced a new version of the device that will run Microsoft's mobile operating system and tie into software giant's email service. RIM, however, hasn't been sitting still. The company has moved to blunt the competitive threat in part by promoting its growing ties with other handset makers. Last month, for instance, it
announced its own deal to allow Palm's Treo to connect with RIM's BlackBerry email servers. And both Nokia and Sony Ericsson have rolled out new devices in recent months that will connect to RIM's service. But the problem for RIM in the marketplace is that its dominance may be challenged by a closing technology gap, says Schamens, who says he doubts that Intellisync's technology is the future, but that one of RIM's competitors clearly is. "I think somebody is going to come out with a better mousetrap, and it will work just as well as RIM's," he says. "With the way technology moves the BlackBerry system is not going be special anymore." A RIM representative did not return a call seeking comment. But others see a more limited threat. Nokia's deal with Intellisync could definitely increase the competition for RIM with consumer and smaller and medium-sized business customers, says one buy-side analyst who asked not to be named. But it's unlikely to supplant RIM in the enterprise market, he says. RIM is fairly entrenched with those enterprise-class customers, and for now, the BlackBerry service is generally easier for those customers than those of its competitors, because they typically have to deal with fewer vendors, says the analyst, whose firm is long Microsoft and Nokia. Other analysts saw even less risk from the Intellisync deal. The company has had some traction with consumer and "prosumer" customers and has a relationship with Nokia, noted Rob Sanderson, an analyst with American Technology Research. But the company seems to have little presence in the enterprise sphere, particularly in delivering wireless email, he said. "Bears are almost certain to call this a 'landscape changing' event and that RIM's days are numbered, although we could not disagree more," says Sanderson, a longtime bull on RIM, whose firm does not do investment banking. "We believe the selloff in RIMM shares is a misread by the market and would be buyers of weakness."