Patent Fight Puts BlackBerry Users on Edge Over Service

Fears of a shutdown prod IT to look at wireless alternatives

With many BlackBerry users starting to panic about the possibility that the popular wireless service could be shut down as part of a long-running patent dispute, IT managers are scrambling to arrange backup options -- just in case.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to intervene in the legal fight between BlackBerry vendor Research In Motion Ltd. and NTP Inc., shutting down one of RIM's stratagems for avoiding a lower-court injunction that would halt most BlackBerry usage in the U.S. Although the latest development in the patent saga wasn't a big surprise, some IT managers said last week that their end users are growing skittish about the BlackBerry service's future.

"The lawyers in my firm are asking me, 'I'm not going to lose service, am I?' Man, people are wiggin' out," said Frank Gillman, director of technology at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory LLP in Los Angeles. About 220 workers at the law firm use BlackBerry 7750 devices.

Gillman said his IT staffers are working to "make sure users know that there are already multiple ways to use remote e-mail" through laptops or any Internet-capable devices that can access the firm's secure Web mail system. "But I have to say, BlackBerry makes it so much easier," he added.

Gillman would even be willing to incur added monthly costs if RIM agreed to settle the dispute and pay licensing fees to NTP. "We'd pay more, within reason," he said. "If we had to pay $5 more a month per device, on top of the current $50 per month, nobody would scream. And I bet if the monthly fee went up another $30, some users might pay it."

John Halamka
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John Halamka
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Mark Guibert, vice president of corporate marketing at RIM, said in a statement that the Waterloo, Ontario-based company "continues to be open to a reasonable resolution" with Arlington, Va.-based NTP. He also said RIM has developed a software work-around that it could implement to avoid any patent-infringement problems if sales of existing BlackBerry devices were barred.

But, like Gillman, other IT managers bemoaned the possible loss of RIM's service, saying that they consider rival products to be far behind the BlackBerry in usability.

John Halamka, CIO at Harvard Medical School and several other New England health care organizations, oversees 500 BlackBerry users and relies heavily on RIM's service himself. Halamka said he is so concerned about the possibility of service disruptions that he filed a declaration on Jan. 11 with the U.S. District Court in Virginia describing how valuable BlackBerry devices were as a backup communications system during a 2002 computer outage at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"BlackBerry service is essential to the clinical operations of Harvard's hospitals," said Halamka, who is a Computerworld columnist. "My server monitoring strategy, my disaster recovery strategy and my personal productivity in my five jobs depend upon the BlackBerry network."

For the past two weeks, Halamka, who receives 600 e-mails daily, has been testing a Palm Inc. Treo 700 device over a Verizon Wireless broadband connection. He said that although the Treo is "perfect" for a low-volume e-mail user, it's not as handy as the BlackBerry for someone who gets as many messages as he does.

Rick Proctor, vice president of IT at Thomas Nelson Inc., a Christian book publisher in Nashville with about 45 BlackBerry users, said RIM's technology has been "a better device for our needs" than other handhelds that the company has tried. Proctor said his staff is talking to Verizon Wireless about a contingency plan.

Room for Optimism

Some IT managers don't think the situation will ever reach the stage where all the contingency plans actually need to be put into effect.

"I expect a white knight to ride in and pull this out of the courts and figure out a way for everyone involved to make money," said Al Porco, CIO at the Central Brooklyn Family Health Network in New York.

Gillman noted that RIM is "out of their minds if they don't settle this dispute. They have so much to lose if somebody shuts things down."

Kevin DiLallo, an attorney at Levine, Blaszak, Block and Boothby LLP in Washington who represents companies in negotiations on wireless service deals, said many of his clients are asking him how to react to the patent dispute.

"If push comes to shove, RIM is going to settle the case -- but at the last minute," DiLallo said. He added that the company is "playing a dangerous game of chicken, since the [federal district] court has on more than one occasion expressed impatience with RIM's litigation tactics."

On Dec. 5, Gartner Inc. advised its clients to hold off on mission-critical BlackBerry purchases. Because neither a settlement nor an injunction has been put in place since then, it now is urging companies that are uncomfortable taking risks to also assess other technologies.

But, Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said, "in the end, I think that many companies are just going to wait it out because there are so many uncertainties no matter which path you follow."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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