BlackBerry Network Threatened

Users are concerned a court order will shut down the service; RIM promises a workaround.

Blackberry customers as well as industry observers remained hopeful but concerned—and largely uninformed—last week following a court ruling that could lead to the shutdown of BlackBerrys wireless e-mail system in the United States.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. maintains that the company has tested and readied a legal, technical workaround that will keep itself and its customers in business even if a judge rules against the Waterloo, Ontario, company. But a lack of technical details about the workaround—which RIM refuses to divulge—worries some industry observers.

"A lot of clients are very upset, and a lot of clients are scared about this," said Phil Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "Were excited to hear what the workaround is, but were afraid its still going to fall under the injunction."

The shutdown looms because of a lengthy patent dispute between RIM and NTP Inc. U.S. District Judge James Spencer granted an injunction in favor of NTP, of Arlington, Va., in 2003, which included a ruling that RIM halt its sales of BlackBerry devices in the United States until NTPs patents run out. Spencer stayed the ruling, though, pending appeal.

At the same time, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been evaluating the validity of NTPs patents. The USPTO initially rejected NTPs claims in March, but it is now in the process of re-evaluating them.

In fact, the USPTO late Wednesday issued a rejection of one of the five patents at the center of the dispute. But the action was a "non-final" action, which could be appealed. Last week, Spencer officially denied RIMs request to stay an injunction pending the USPTOs decision. But he has yet to carry through with the injunction.

"The [USPTO is] going to shut [NTPs suit] down in a couple of months," Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of RIM, told eWEEK. "Though NTP can take an appeal to the courts from there, for all intents and purposes, their patents are finished at that point."

"We hope that this [recent ruling] brings [RIM] back to the negotiating table," said Kevin Anderson, an attorney with Washington-based Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP, one of the law firms that represent NTP. "Weve always been willing to give them a deal that addresses their business needs."

Meanwhile, most customers remain confident that their service will stay intact because BlackBerry usage is so prevalent. However, the uncertainty has left them thinking about backup plans in the event that BlackBerry service goes dark.

"Since Congress and other users depend on RIM for workflows that impact national security, Im convinced that RIM and BlackBerry will survive," said John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and the CareGroup Healthcare System, in Boston, who supports a total of 800 BlackBerry devices. "If I must, Id very reluctantly consider a smart phone."

"Ive got to believe the economics are going to force some resolution," said Jim Whalen, CIO of Boston Properties Inc., in Boston, which supports some 130 BlackBerry devices. "We dont have a backup plan. If it comes, well have to work with Verizon [Wireless] to figure something out."

The major carriers in the United States offer RIM devices and services, but most offer competing solutions, too. "We do offer other e-mail devices," said Brenda Rainey, a spokesperson for Verizon, in Bedminster, N.J. Verizon offers a push e-mail service called VZAccess.


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