RIM faces tough sell on Q1 earnings and outlook

By Alastair Sharp

TORONTO (Reuters) - Research In Motion will have to struggle to give investors good news when it reports results after markets close on Thursday, but details on when new BlackBerry devices will hit shelves might help.

Strong sales of its PlayBook tablet -- which had six weeks on North American shelves in the company's first quarter to late May -- may also give RIM some respite from a barrage of criticism about falling behind tech giants Apple and Google in a fast-moving race.

The Canadian company warned in April that lackluster smartphone sales in the United States and Latin America would likely mean lower earnings than in the previous four quarters.

RIM has made big promises in an aggressive full-year earnings outlook, but without a launch date for a more powerful touchscreen version of its business workhorse, the Bold smartphone, and with Torch and Storm smartphone upgrades still just rumors, investors are growing more nervous.

"We believe RIM has now squandered nearly every opportunity and competitive advantage it enjoyed through ineffective R&D resource management, delayed product launches and misreads of the competitive environment," Morgan Stanley analyst Ehud Gelblum wrote in a note to clients.

Cellular versions of its PlayBook tablet are imminent, RIM says, and the PlayBook will soon be sold worldwide after a lumpy April launch in North America.

With most analysts assuming first-quarter results will fail to inspire, attention turns to RIM's forecasts for the current quarter, which ends in late August, and details about imminent product launches.

RIM will likely ship just over 14 million BlackBerry smartphones and less than 700,000 PlayBook tablets in that period, according to a Reuters poll of 21 analysts.

A more robust company forecast would signal RIM expects new models in time for the pivotal back-to-school buying period from late July to early October.

Although unlikely to make or break RIM's reputation, initial sales of the 7-inch PlayBook will hint at how it stacks up against both the iPad -- of which Apple sold 2 million in its first two months -- and Android-based tablets such as Motorola Mobility's Xoom.

PlayBook sales of more than 370,000 in the first quarter would exceed subdued expectations. Motorola sold 250,000 Xoom tablets in its first month.

RIM should report earnings of $1.32 a share on revenue of $5.1 billion for the first quarter, analysts say, and $1.36 a share on revenue of $5.4 billion in the current quarter.

(Editing by Peter Galloway)