Rivals Wait to Serve BlackBerry Customers

News Analysis: Experts list Microsoft and Nokia among the companies that could move in to fill the void if wireless e-mail provider RIM loses its patent battle with NTP.

Industry experts said Thursday that it remains unlikely that Research In Motion Ltd. will be forced to shut down its wireless e-mail service as a result of its patent litigation with NTP Inc. But if the company does indeed unplug its BlackBerry network, analysts said, a familiar list of companies could be viewed as potential replacements.

In the latest twist to the suit, first filed by NTP in 2001, a U.S. District Judge last week rejected RIMs request to delay the patent infringement case and reinforced a 2003 decision that ordered the company to nix its e-mail services and halt sales of its BlackBerry handhelds in the United States.

However, RIM maintains that if and when that ruling is finally enforced, after the company has run out of legal appeals, it has a workaround ready that will keep its e-mail services up and running without relying on technologies owned by NTP.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about how RIM plans to weather the NTP storm.

Most industry watchers agree that the chances are slim that RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario, will be forced to shut down its BlackBerry service, arguing that the firm would rather settle with NTP than leave its estimated 3.5 million mobile e-mail subscribers in the dark.

But on the off chance that RIM is eventually shut out, or the workaround fails, anlysts agree that a list of potential suitors could attempt to grab customers in the aftermath.

Two of the names that come up most frequently as potentially providing a replacement for RIMs mobile e-mail services are technology giants Microsoft Corp. and Nokia Corp., both of which have been pushing hard to raise their presence in the space, in particular among the business clients that make up the bulk of BlackBerrys existing customers.

Analysts said that either firm would love to increase its own user ranks at RIMs expense, and that customers might be willing to listen.

In addition to marketing the type of e-mail server software necessary to serve as the brains behind such a wireless network, experts said the two firms could likely bankroll programs aimed at moving large numbers of users over to their respective technologies.

"Both Nokia and Microsoft can bring a lot of weight to bear on this if they need to in terms of offering discounted devices, or subsidizing a swap in the name of building market share," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "Itd likely be a battle of the behemoths, as others could have problems making those types of investments."

Officials at Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., said they had no marketing plans to try to capitalize on the uncertainties about RIMs future. Instead, Microsoft plans to stay the course with its established plan to roll out a software combo that it will pitch as a competitor to RIMs BlackBerry platform, said Jeff Ressler, director of Exchange marketing.

Microsofts push e-mail solution consists of two parts: Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2, which Microsoft made available for download in October, and the Windows Mobile 5.0 Messaging and Security Feature Pack, which Microsoft said will be widely available in early 2006.

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead more here about the patent battle between NTP and RIM.

"The thing thats different about us is we embrace the Internet model. You can use your existing Exchange infrastructure with the Internet protocols like HTTP and HTTPS. We dont need centralization or agreements with the carriers," Ressler said. "We wont be adding on subscription fees or requiring additional servers."

Ressler acknowledged that "what is happening now [with RIM] highlights the benefits of our approach." But he added that Microsoft has no plans to deviate from its usual high volume, low cost strategy in the push e-mail space, regardless of what happens with RIM.

Unlike Microsoft, Nokia, which significantly expanded its presence in the wireless e-mail space with its $430 million buyout of software maker Intellisync Corp. in November, has the ability to offer customers nearly everything that RIM sells, from the necessary e-mail infrastructure technology and services to the handheld devices.

Next Page: The case for Nokia.