Is RIM Courting Trouble?

eLABorations: Innovation, not litigation, will keep the company on top of the mobile messaging market

OK, so it isnt anywhere near as silly as what Amazon tried (successfully) to pull with one-click ordering. Still, RIMs recent moves to lay the smackdown on Handspring and Good Technology for patent infringement have left me scratching my head in confusion.

Last Tuesday, RIM received a U.S. patent for "a hand-held electronic device with a keyboard optimized for use with the thumbs," and the company moved straightaway after Handspring and its patently offensive, if you will, line of Treo handheld devices.

RIMs battles with Good Technology string back a bit further—there are four suits and a countersuit now creeping through the courts. According to RIM, Goods badness stems from various acts of RIM-mimicry on Goods part, mostly related to violations of RIM patents on e-mail-forwarding schemes.

RIM makes great products, as evidenced by the extreme loyalty with which users regard their Blackberry devices, and Id certainly class the company as a leader and an innovator in its field. But are the Blackberry devices and the e-mail redirection software that accompanies them really inventions, or are they obvious outgrowths of prior art?

Regardless of whether you and I agree on this point, the question has already been answered by the U.S. patent office. Maybe, then, itd make more sense to wonder whether RIM is acting in its own best interests to challenge its rivals in the courts, rather than in the marketplace.

The always-on mobile e-mail experience that devices like the Blackberry deliver is the sort of thing that you have to use yourself in order to really understand. Once you get it, however, youre hooked, which is why RIMs devices have been called wireless e-mail crack. Yet even with the great user loyalty that RIM enjoys, the community of Blackberry users is relatively small—fewer than 300,000.

Clearly, this is a market with room to grow, which is why Handspring, Good, and far more companies than RIM can sue individually, are jumping into this space.

RIM is the undisputed leader in the mobile e-mail space, particularly where it matters most—in peoples minds.

Blackberry is THE name in mobile messaging, and RIM holds considerable product experience advantages in this space. So why should RIM fear new faces and the market growth and increased attention that they bring?

RIMs rivals arent going anywhere, and none of them will submit to paying RIM a licensing fee each time they wish to build a thumb-keyboard-bearing, mobile e-mail device for the next 20 or so years.

Instead, RIM needs to lead by innovation—keep building the best products, and in time it may indeed become the sort of wireless platform company that its interested in becoming.

RIM got this platform strategy off to a great start with the launch of the J2ME and GPRS-based Blackberry 5810, a device that I regarded highly when I reviewed it last spring.

Proper execution is vital, as demonstrated in RIMs previous Blackberry devices—in which arguably obvious, yet excellently implemented concepts yielded successful and effective products.

And yet, as eWEEKs own Carmen Noble reported last week, RIM is now faltering in the execution of its J2ME-based platform strategy, leaving third-party application developers in the lurch by delaying API deliveries for the new platform.

Times are certainly tough, and new platform migrations dont happen overnight, but I cant help but wonder whether a thinning of RIMs lawyer corps wouldnt free up some resources for focusing more fully on the only thing that can keep RIM on top of its game: the product.

I think RIMs shooting itself in foot here. What do you think? Write to me at