RIM co-chief: We're still a major player in smartphones. Really.

Balsillie bristles at Elop's omission of BlackBerry maker as mobile "ecosystem" leader

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I've been waiting for this kind of thing from Research in Motion.

(Also see: U.S. smartphone market a tightening 3-way race)

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, RIM co-chief executive Jim Balsillie took exception to recent comments by Nokia CEO Stephen Elop that, by adopting Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 platform in lieu of its own Symbian mobile OS, Nokia had created "a three horse race between Windows, Android and Apple" for smartphone OS supremacy, as the BBC reports.

"I don't know how you can say that we are not in the race," said Mr. Balsillie at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"We have had huge growth in the last year. I wouldn't write us off," he said.

I'm sure it's incredibly comforting to shareholders that RIM's co-leader wouldn't write off the company, but Balsillie's remarks only hint at half the story. With smartphone sales increasing dramatically, a company actually can increase sales on a quarterly and annual basis and still lose market share. Which is exactly what RIM is doing. And that's why the BlackBerry maker often is overlooked when the smartphone market going forward is discussed.

Just look at the latest smartphone market research from Canalys. It shows BlackBerry shipments in the fourth quarter of 2010 increasing to 14.6 million from 10.7 million in the year-ago quarter. That's an impressive 36 percent jump in sales. Guess what happened to RIM's market share in the fourth quarter? It went down to 14.4 percent from 20.0 percent in Q4 '09.

Canalys

In the fourth quarter of 2009, RIM was second only to Nokia in smartphone shipments, and the BlackBerry had a seeming stranglehold on the corporate market. A year later and RIM is in fourth place, even though it sold 36 percent more phones than it did in the previous Q4. The problem is, smartphone sales increased 89 percent in that time. Google, Nokia and Apple are now the top three in smartphone shipments.

Further, each has an obvious strength: Google's Android mobile OS has exploded onto the smartphone landscape over the past year. It's the market leader and it has momentum. Apple is a market innovator and has a core group of devoted customers. Nokia still is the world's largest seller of mobile devices and the Finnish company has much higher brand value in Europe than in the U.S.

What's RIM's core strength? It used to be the corporate market, but Apple and Android have eaten away at that. Which is the main reason why RIM is trying to make more headway in the consumer market. That declining market share is due to corporate types abandoning their BlackBerrys for an iPhone 4 or some kind of Droid.

You also have to wonder whether RIM knows it's never going to recover its position of prominence in the smartphone market. That as much as anything has to be why the company seems to be pinning so much of its future on its upcoming PlayBook tablet computer. Announced last September, the device isn't expected to be available for several weeks, but the PlayBook has garnered some good early reviews.

Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.

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