Second Tier Smart Phone Makers Likely To Struggle With Profitability

When shares of Palm (PALM) were trading in the mid single digits I was quite bullish on the company’s stock simply because a revamped product line and a private equity capital infusion would likely serve to keep the company afloat and give it a chance to reverse a declining sales trend. We now find ourselves in round two of the story. Palm and the other second tier device companies are trying to grab market share in a rapidly growing smart phone market but the Blackberry and iPhone are unlikely to give up their leadership positions.

With a market growing so rapidly (3-5 years from now pretty much everyone is likely to have a smart phone device) selling devices is one thing, but making good money on them is quite another. Last week Palm reported that it shipped nearly 800,000 phones in the latest quarter, but the company lost a whopping $50 million in the process. Gross margins are only around 25-27% despite about 80% of sales coming from the new Pre and Pixi phones.

That does not leave much room for profitability when second tier firms have to spend so much on marketing to be noticed by a consumer who may be focused on the iPhone or Blackberry. The introduction of a Google phone into the mobile market (rumored to be early next year) will only make it harder for second tier players. In fact, Palm stressed on their conference call last Thursday evening that they are focused on gaining market share, not margins, so there is little reason to expect them to even care about profits in the short to intermediate term.

To me this makes the investment merit of companies like Palm a lot less attractive. I would add a company like Motorola (MOT) to this list too. Sure they have the new Droid phone, but the competitive landscape is so crowded that sustainable profitability seems difficult. Again, a rapidly growing market can lift all boats in terms of device sales, but future stock price performance will be based on profits, not sales, now that the market believes (correctly) that Palm and Motorola will survive to compete in the marketplace.

At Peridot Capital I was a buyer of Palm early in 2009 but pared back the position a lot as the stock rose into the mid teens. Now that the story has played out I will be less bullish on the shares unless they can reach sustainable profitability. And I do not think the prospects for Motorola are any more promising.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital has just a small long position in Palm and no position in Motorola at the time of writing, although positions may change at any time.