February 25, 2006

Betting On BlackBerry

On Friday, the judge overseeing the long haggled patent infringement case between Research In Motion (RIMM) and NTP Software gave the BlackBerry handheld maker a short-term reprieve, avoiding a service shutdown and sending sighs of relief out from Silicon Valley to Washington DC and beyond, as those who rely on the BlackBerry for everything from critical life-saving emergencies to those who hunt and peck at the devices like addicts saw their fears of being cut off quelled - for now.

The story of NTP vs. RIM is complicated. The short version is that NTP software owns patents regarding sending e-mail data to wireless devices, despite having never created machinery to take advantage of their inventions. When RIM developed their handheld BlackBerry, and NTP believed it to infringe on their patents, RIM was slow to respond, not taking the holding company seriously. While in the years since, NTP has seen many of their patents invalidated, as in parallel the case progressed, legal analysts are faulting RIM for not finding a way out of this morass before now, declining settlement proposals, and there remains the possibility that the millions of BlackBerry users out there may be forced to turn to the Palm Treo or another option. While RIM has offered a work-around, should they lose the case, others aren't convinced it's a workable solution.

I remember first being introduced to BlackBerry in 1999 or 2000 by a co-worker who had acquired version 1.0 of their product. It was black and bulky, but did send and receive e-mail. I wasn't too impressed - thinking that Handspring/Palm's offerings would eventually manage to handle e-mail in a more elegant package. As usual, I was wrong. BlackBerry took off. I've got one, and they're the standard at the office. I don't know of anybody who is rooting for RIM to fail. Everybody wants them to win, and finds this case to be a great example of the patent litigation system just being a tad nutty. At least, for once, it's a small company pushing a large company, and not a large bully using patents as a legal sword to stifle competition. There's sure to be some interesting developments in the coming months, so we'll watch and see.

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