TORONTO (Reuters) - Research In Motion likely sold as many BlackBerrys in its last quarter as Apple sold iPhones, aided by a strong showing from its new Torch smartphone, as Google gathers steam and Microsoft enters the fray.
The Torch -- a touchscreen phone with a slide-out qwerty keyboard -- comes with an improved browser and revamped operating system. It shipped to dozens of carriers after an August launch with AT&T in the United States, and an AT&T half-price promotion from early November likely helped sales.
But as the smartphone market explodes, RIM faces a groundswell of skepticism, with even its long-dominant position in mobile corporate communication questioned as banks consider allowing employees to bring in other devices.
RIM has lost some 4 percentage points of global smartphone market share in a year, according to industry tracker IDC.
In the three months to November 27 the Canadian company is expected to have shipped 14.1 million BlackBerrys, the mid-range of its own robust guidance, according to 23 analyst forecasts compiled by Reuters.
That would tie it with the number of iPhones Apple shipped in its quarter ended September 25 -- a figure Apple chief Steve Jobs boasts as putting RIM firmly in Apple's rearview mirror.
Analysts expect RIM to earn $1.64 per share in the third quarter, according to Reuters data. Revenue is seen at $5.40 billion, with gross margin likely slipping to 42 percent, in line with management guidance.
RIM has forecast earnings between $1.62 and $1.70 per share and revenue of between $5.3 billion and $5.55 billion.
"The biggest concern is that they are just churning phones in their existing base," said Colin Gillis from BGC Partners.
That fear will be exacerbated if RIM misses on net subscriber additions, a metric that is unique to the BlackBerry maker. RIM has said it will not report net subscriber additions -- the net change in customers using its network servers -- or average selling price after Thursday's results.
Net additions was the sole laggard last quarter, when RIM made bold forecasts for the quarter to November 27.
Analysts expect RIM to record 5.1 million net subscriber additions and post an average selling price of $311, both at the low end of the company's forecast range. That would take its installed base above 55 million.
Rivals Apple and Google, which provides the Android operating system, have won fans with touchscreen devices filled with third-party applications, while Microsoft's return to mobile software also threatens.
The Torch, and a number of product refreshes, have not allayed long-term fears over RIM's competitive strength.
"As the handset market goes through profound changes, the company's corporate business is at risk and we see current growth and profitability in the consumer market as an unsustainable combination," Bernstein analyst Pierre Ferragu, one of RIM's harshest critics, wrote in a recent note.
RIM's share price jumped 30 percent in the three months to the end of November as it drip-fed details of its planned PlayBook tablet computer to investors and technophiles eager to judge the swelling field of competitors to Apple's iPad.
RIM is testing new ground with the PlayBook -- which will launch early next year -- and its QNX-based operating system, which will eventually power its smartphones too. But skepticism on RIM has spread to the tablet market.
"The iPad is now the early incumbent in the enterprise that RIM would need to one-up in its features or one-down in price," analyst Steven Fox from CLSA said in a note in which he shifted from a "buy" recommendation on RIM to "underperform".
He expects Apple will have sold around 17 million iPads By the time RIM sells its first Playbook.
Editing by Rob Wilson and Janet Guttsman