The Research In Motion and NTP patent dispute provided a few more twists and turns this week as the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal and a federal court judge set Feb. 24 as a key hearing date.
On Jan. 23, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in an ongoing battle that has loomed over BlackBerry customers for years.
Then on Jan. 25 a federal judge set a Feb. 24 hearing date in the Eastern District Court of Virginia to consider a possible injunction that could shut down BlackBerry wireless e-mail service in the United States.
Whats next? More court hearings. More big headlines. And more big questions facing enterprises as managers ponder what it will mean for business if the BlackBerry goes bust.
With that in mind, heres an FAQ to help you map out a plan.
Whats the back story?
Holding company NTP sued Canadian BlackBerry maker Research in Motion for alleged patent infringement on nine wireless e-mail patents in 2001.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer ruled in favor of NTP in 2003, instructing RIM to halt its sales of BlackBerry devices and services in the United States until NTPs patents run out in 2012.
Spencer stayed the ruling, however, pending appeal. Since then, the case has gone through several appeals and failed settlement attempts.
In the meantime, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been re-evaluating several of the disputed patents for months. The USPTO has indicated that it intends to reject all of NTPs claims eventually, in which the case would be null and void.
Industry experts said the process could take several months, though, as NTP has voiced plans to appeal every decision it can.
Since Judge Spencer ruled against RIM, NTP has secured patent licensing deals with several of RIMs competitors in the remote access software industry, including Nokia in June 2004, Good Technology in March 2005 and Visto in Dec. 2005.
"RIM refuses to take a license and pay NTP," said Kevin Anderson, an attorney with Wiley Rein & Fielding of Washington, one of the law firms that represent NTP.
"If someone camps on your front lawn and refuses to pay you, you have no choice but to seek assistance in removing the squatter."
How ugly can this get?
Very ugly. Of the 4.3 million BlackBerry customers worldwide, 75 percent are in North America. For those customers, the worst thing in the near term would be for Judge Spencer to shut down BlackBerry sales and services in the United States, which could happen after the Feb. 24 hearing.
For those who use their BlackBerrys as cell phones, the phone service would remain in place, but the e-mail service would be shelved.
"While removing BlackBerry support from my life does seem very appealing, the truth is this service has become an integral part of our day-to-day business operations," said Nick Gass, IT manager at Color Kinetics, a digital lighting company in Boston.
"Our sales team relies on their BlackBerry devices as their primary means of contact, and our executive team uses them to an almost manic degree. BlackBerries have become practically indispensable."