BlackBerry users 'wiggin' out' over RIM/NTP patent battle

And IT managers aren't thrilled with the alternatives to RIM's wireless service

BlackBerry users are panicked about the possibility that the popular wireless e-mail and voice service from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) could be shut down by an ongoing legal dispute -- and IT managers are scrambling to arrange backup systems, just in case.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused on Monday to intervene in the fight between RIM in Waterloo, Ontario, and NTP Inc. in Arlington, Va., closing down one of RIM's legal avenues in its battle with NTP. More than 4 million BlackBerry users and IT managers use or manage the technology, and those reached this week said in interviews that they're growing skittish about the future of RIM's service, which has been so reliable and addictive that many call their handhelds "CrackBerries."

"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, a Los Angeles law firm with 222 BlackBerry 7750 users who send e-mails with the BlackBerry's QWERTY keyboard and use the devices as wireless telephones.

RIM is "out of their minds if they don't settle this dispute," he said. "They have so much to lose if somebody shuts things down. Certainly RIM is not that stupid."

Gillman said BlackBerry is one of the "most widely used and widely beloved" technology brands in history and is trusted by a powerful group of well-paid lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers and executives. "If they take it away and people freak out, that would be a horrible risk to RIM's future," he said.

Gillman said his firm would be willing to incur added monthly costs to keep the service alive, should RIM agree to settle 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."

IT staffers at Allen Matkins are working to "make sure users know that there are already multiple ways to use remote e-mail" through laptops or any Internet-capable device that can access the law firm's secure Web mail. "But I have to say, BlackBerry makes it so much easier," he said, noting that the device's small size and the instant access to e-mail is very convenient.

Gillman said he hopes that RIM can devise a work-around that avoids patent infringement, because it would be easier to install new software for the RIM service than to find an alternative.

In a statement today to Computerworld, Mark Guibert, vice president of corporate marketing at RIM, said that the company does have a work-around design that is "ready and will be implemented if necessary" and that RIM will "protect customer interests against NTP's threats" (see "RIM: Work-around ready if needed to avoid service disruption"). NTP, meanwhile, is hoping that a lower court will issue a permanent injunction against RIM.

Neither company would discuss the possibility of a settlement.

With that backdrop, other IT managers bemoaned the possible loss of RIM service, and -- like Gillman -- said their backup plans remain uncertain since many expect to have plenty of time to formulate backup options. All the IT managers interviewed by Computerworld consider the alternatives a distant second in usability.

John Halamka, CIO at Harvard Medical School in Boston and other New England health care organizations, said he is "concerned" about the possibility of service disruptions, since he oversees 500 BlackBerry users. He is so concerned that he filed a declaration on Jan. 11 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that notes how valuable BlackBerry was as a vital backup communications system during a November 2002 computer outage at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Halamka said he gets 600 e-mails a day and finds BlackBerry "the only industrial-strength wireless communications device on the market." For the past two weeks, he has been testing the Palm Inc. Treo 700 over a Verizon Wireless broadband connection for phone, e-mail and personal digital assistant functions. While it's "perfect" for a low-volume e-mail user, it's not as handy for someone who gets as many daily e-mails as he does, Halamka said.

"BlackBerry service is excellent, with 99.95% uptime, and essential to the clinical operations of Harvard's hospitals," he said. "My server monitoring strategy, my disaster recovery strategy and my personal productivity in my five jobs depend upon the BlackBerry network."

Rick Proctor, vice president of IT at Thomas Nelson Inc., a Christian book publisher in Nashville, said the BlackBerry has been "a better device for our needs" than other systems his organization tried. Proctor said his staff is talking to Verizon, which provides the wireless network for the RIM service, about a contingency plan, but he did not know the details. Thomas Nelson has about 45 BlackBerry users.

Other IT managers said they are watching the legal battle with interest, but they predicted a solution that does not lead to a service disruption. "Some staff and many of our doctors use [the] BlackBerry, but 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.

Kevin DiLallo, an attorney at Levine, Blaszak, Block and Boothy LLP in Washington, D.C., said he has heard from many of his clients about how to react to the patent dispute. He represents large companies in wireless communications services negotiations and provides advice on wireless technologies and services.

"If push comes to shove, RIM is going to settle the case -- but at the last minute," he said, adding that RIM is "playing a dangerous game of chicken, since the court has on more than once occasion expressed impatience with RIM's litigation tactics."

DiLallo said he doesn't understand why the U.S. District Court in Virginia has not accepted findings by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office favoring RIM. He said it would be wise for the court to hold off any injunction affecting RIM until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in another patent case, MercExchange v. eBay, about whether federal courts must defer to the rulings of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Ultimately, DiLallo said, the most serious threat to BlackBerry will not be the pending injunction, but competition from other vendors.

Two Gartner Inc. analysts said that many Gartner clients have called with worries about how to proceed in light of the RIM/NTP fight in recent months. "We believe that U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer will force RIM to settle with NTP by threatening to issue an injunction and that RIM is likely to do so in the weeks ahead," said Todd Kort, a Gartner analyst.

On Dec. 5, Gartner urged its clients to hold off on any mission-critical BlackBerry purchases, but since neither a settlement nor an injunction has arrived, the analyst firm has recently urged companies that are uncomfortable taking risks to also assess replacement alternatives. "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," Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said this week.

Kort said in an interview that the dispute has been prolonged partly because "RIM is a proud and stubborn company, and they honestly believe they did not copy anything from NTP."

RIM faces strong competition from Good Technology Inc. and Intellisync Corp., Kort said, but the competition falls short by not having a device with a keyboard that users will want. For example, the Treo 700w has a keyboard that is "too cramped for most users to comfortably crank out lengthy e-mails as they do with the BlackBerry," Kort said. Until Microsoft Corp. delivers a "push" e-mail technology, he said, devices like the 700w and Motorola's Q "will not be capable of substituting for BlackBerry."

The IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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