Blackberry-Maker RIM Could Face Testy Crowd at Annual Meeting

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Julie Fletcher / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Thorsten Heins, president and chief executive officer of Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), speaks at the BlackBerry World Conference in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

When Research in Motion CEO Thorsten Heins addresses the company’s shareholders at its annual meeting Tuesday, he could face a tough audience. Two weeks ago, the company reported a $518 million loss and said it plans to lay off 5,000 people — about one-third of its work force.

RIM also said its new operating system — BlackBerry 10 — which Heins has been touting as the company’s salvation, would be further delayed, until 2013. It’s just the latest bad news for RIM, which has seen Blackberry’s share of the smartphone market crumble in recent years as Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android devices have surged. RIM stock price has evaporated by over 90% from a peak of over $140 in 2008, to its current level of under $8. On Monday, RIM shares fell by another 5%.

Today, there is little doubt that RIM is in serious trouble. The company has announced a “strategic review” of its business strategy, and hired JPMorgan Chase and RBC Capital to help its evaluate “strategic options,” which is often corporate-speak for a sale. Yet as recently as last week, Heins was still insisting that “there’s nothing wrong with the company as it exists right now.” Analysts are not as upbeat about the company’s prospects: “We see the situation at RIM continuing to deteriorate from both a competitive and product perspective,” Credit Suisse analyst Kulbinder Garcha wrote in a recent note to clients. “In spite of the company’s push toward a new platform (OS and ecosystem), we believe these efforts may prove too little too late.”

(More: BlackBerry Crushed)

Some of RIM’s big corporate clients have become so spooked about a possible interruption in Blackberry service that they’ve started to develop “contingency plans,” Bloomberg reported Monday. “In the past three months there’s been a lot of concern that the BlackBerry platform won’t be around in the future,” wireless-industry consultant Maribel Lopez, told the news service. “It’s not unheard of for a large phone manufacturer to go out of business.” In an interview with CIO Monday, Heins hinted that Blackberry 10 could arrive as early as January 2013, but by then, another iPhone will have launched, adding further pressure to RIM’s turnaround.

Adding to RIM’s woes, the company may actually face lawsuits over Heins’s relentlessly optimistic comments in the face of a rapidly deteriorating business, as well as the Blackberry 10 delay, according to The New York Times. “They’re going to get sued and they should get sued because I think a closer look at the record is likely to unearth knowing and willful misrepresentation,” Jean-Louis Gassée, a former Apple product executive who is now a venture capitalist and influential blogger in Silicon Valley, told The Times. “When the C.E.O. says there’s nothing wrong with the company as it is, it’s not cautious, it doesn’t make sense.”

(More: How Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android Left BlackBerry in the Dust)

For its part, RIM issued a statement to The Times denying that it has misled investors: “RIM is well aware of its disclosure obligations under applicable securities laws and is committed to providing a high level of transparency, as evidenced by RIM’s decision to issue an interim business update on May 29, 2012, to alert shareholders that it expected to report an operating loss.”

RIM shareholders have traditionally been among the Blackberry’s most fervent fans. But with the company running on fumes it’s unclear how much longer that will last — especially giving the massive destruction of shareholder value that has befallen the company in recent years. If Heins can’t convince his own shareholders that RIM can survive its current predicament and go on to thrive, how will he be able to convince consumers and the company’s corporate customers? Heins faces an uphill battle.