Greg Aharonian, who follows patents pretty closely, says there is probably a book to be written about the four-year battle between Research in Motion and NTP Inc. that now, at least theoretically, threatens e-mail service to 3.5 million BlackBerry users.
Aharonian is editor of the Internet Patent News Service e-mail list, and I called him to ask if he could think of any patent battle that ever so directly affected customers as the dispute between NTP and RIM now threatens to.
The best he could come up with was when Polaroid forced Kodak to get out of the instant photography business, after customers had already been using Kodaks instant cameras and film paks. It was a big embarrassment for Kodak at the time, but today hardly anyone (including myself) remembers.
Most of the time, patent fights end without customers being threatened. Youd think it would be much more to NTPs benefit to take a piece of RIMs revenue in a licensing agreement than to risk losing it all by shutting down BlackBerry e-mail and forcing RIM to use its touted patent-free workaround. It is better for everyone, I think, for the problem to just go away.
How the RIM and NTP dispute came to such an impasse may be the stuff of which a book could be made, but Im among those who dont care to read such a horror story of bad management. I just want this whole mess to go away without any collateral damage to customers.
RIM and NTP both get big demerits for not solving their problems years ago. BlackBerry customers must now be considered to be at least a little bit in play, which is a defeat for both companies and an unnecessary opening for competitors, who wont pay NTP anything.
After we discussed BlackBerry, the talk with Aharonian turned to Microsoft and the companys “opening” of the Office file formats, which has also been in the news lately. Theres no love lost between Aharonian and the open source community, whom he says wrongly take credit for something they didnt actually start: the sharing of source code.
Be that as it may, Aharonian says that fears of Microsofts patents are greatly exaggerated. By Aharonians figuring, many Microsoft patents arent valid and, even if they are, Microsoft could only expect more antitrust troubles if it protected its patents too aggressively. Because of that, companies who might run afoul of Microsofts intellectual property claims shouldnt be too concerned, he told me.
What he didnt mention, however, was that it really doesnt matter whether the companys patents are valid or not, since Microsoft has the legal and financial resources to keep a competitor tied up for years in a patent dispute. To a large company, this might not be a problem, but for a small one it could lead to bankruptcy. Thats a good reason, I think, for competitors to welcome the covenant not to sue that Microsoft has offered users of its file formats.
Its not unusual for technology companies to be fighting over patents and intellectual property. It is unusual, however, for the battles to become so public, involving things that customers actually use, like two-way pagers and Office file formats. Im hoping this isnt the beginning of a trend as tech companies take what once were private battles and turn them into public spectacles.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.