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Time To Consider BlackBerry Alternatives

Listen.

The sounds you are hearing come from millions of fingers feverishly twitching on BlackBerry devices and BlackBerry-enabled cell phones worldwide.

By the end of this month, however, those sounds could come to an abrupt halt if a U.S. District Court decides there is enough merit in a long-standing legal action initiated by NTP, Inc. against Research in Motion, Inc. (RIM) concerning the patents that make up the heart and soul of the BlackBerry messaging technology. The court is scheduled to hear both sides of the case (again!) and decide whether to apply an injunction against RIM on Feb. 24.

If the court decides there is the possibility that one or more patents have been infringed upon, then the BlackBerry service could very well go dark, or at least dim since there has been some discussion and legal rambling about the impact a sudden that would have in the U.S. government and Homeland Security users.

For those of you have been in the dark about this lawsuit, which has been rattling about since 2001, here is a quick primer: NTP Inc. filed the lawsuit against RIM, claiming it had violated a number of patents that concern the BlackBerry’s messaging technology and demanded a settlement plus a percentage of future sales. RIM eventually came back and offered a settlement of more than $450 million, which NTP declined. About $300 million of that has since been placed in escrow to await a final decision by the courts.

On the long road from 2002 to today, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued an Action Closing Prosecution ruling, which rejected all claims associated with NTP's patent infringement lawsuit against RIM -- including five of the original seven patent infringement claims. This means the PTO will no longer hear any comments from both sides.

U.S. District Judge James Spencer is scheduled to hear testimony from both sides this Friday (Feb. 24), and reportedly decide whether to pull the plug on the BlackBerry service in the U.S., as requested by NTP. Naturally, everyone is quite worried about this possibility, including the U.S. government, which has a considerable base of BlackBerry users and reportedly relies on the device and its "always on, always available" messaging capability for Homeland Security-related activities. Businesses are also concerned, although not as much as you would expect, according to temperament surveys taken by Gartner and other research groups.

BlackBerry Shuffle

One of the reasons why businesses may not be worried is because RIM has promised a workaround solution in the event the courts flip the switch and halt the service. However, most analysts agree the workaround is not just a simple reroute around Litigation Avenue, but involves a serious software over-the-air upgrade that might cost up to $1,000/device, say the experts.

Other companies have taken a better-safe-than-sorry approach and switched from BlackBerry to other similar services and devices, like Good Technology Inc.’s GoodLink software and the Palm Inc.'s Treo family of devices (In fact, we know companies that have made the switch just because the Treo and its interface are a better solution).

Microsoft Corp. is also coming on strong with its MSN Mobile platform and evolving Windows Live environment. At 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain last week, the company announced a number of partnerships with device manufacturers to use its mobile software and Direct Push Technology. Devices using this technology are now offered by manufacturers and 102 mobile operators in 55 countries.

Just this week, Yahoo Also announced a partnership with AT&T to offer an integrated suite of services, called AT&T Yahoo Go Mobile. The service will initially operate on Nokia 6682 phones operating on the Cingular wireless network in the U.S., and soon be expanded to other handset platforms and 10 different markets outside the U.S.

A key feature of the Yahoo Go Mobile technology is the high level of level of integration between its core set of applications and the seamless interaction between programs contained on the mobile handset and those that are based on a server system or user's desktop PC, says a spokesman for Yahoo. While Yahoo falls short of saying it, the systems are designed to play very well in the always-on, always-available arena and might very well evolve to offer some competition for both RIM and Palm.

With all of this competition happening and more waiting in the wings, it might be a very good idea for RIM, NTP and others to reconsider the wisdom of lawsuits that create more problems and complications than solutions and opportunities. Yes, there is a very good reason for patent protection and laws that protect intellectual property. But it really makes one wonder how much merit these suits have when the companies initiating these actions make a living out of chasing paperwork for a high payoff.

RIM has always had a reputation in the industry as an arrogant and somewhat gruff company that developed and launched a new industry segment and did its best to let no one forget that fact. Maybe the NTP suit is good since it is a well deserved swat on the side of the head, since RIM does seem to be more cooperative and at least makes a valid effort to keep everyone informed of developments on the legal front through its Web site.

Whatever happens this Friday and in the weeks and months that follow may also be good as companies reconsider their messaging platforms and look to install their own safeguards against sudden stoppages. Second sources are never a bad idea, and NTP's actions -- frivolous or not -- have at least reminded everyone of the importance of having a backup plan.

— Tim Scannell, Contributing Editor, Unstrung

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