by Thomas Wailgum

Taking Shots at RIM

Dec 20, 20054 mins
IT LeadershipMobileSmall and Medium Business

Alongside ice hockey and Molson beer, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry is one of the more cherished exports that Canada has sent south of the border. But, as most everyone knows now, Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM might be looking at a “lockout” similar to what the National Hockey League experienced last year, when the season was called off.

Back in early November, I crowed in a CIO News Brief about the lack of attention over the patent infringement case between NTP and RIM, and the potential court-ordered ban on BlackBerry use in the United States. I received nothing in response, which surprised me.

Now the case is in the news again, with word that the U.S. Patent Office is ready to throw out NTP’s claims. NTP, however, says it will not “go away silently.” Which is reason to stop and think.

Most knowledge workers in the United States spend more time with BlackBerrys than their significant others. (Ask any executive what he’s bringing on his vacation, and you’re bound to hear the word BlackBerry in there.) I wonder whether CIOs, who have rolled out 5 million BlackBerrys, have any kind of backup plans in place in case a new settlement doesn’t materialize (the first one was for $450 million, but fell through). I can’t imagine a worse job than that of the IS person who has to (figuratively) take away users’ BlackBerrys. “What do you mean I can’t use it? How am I going to contact my customers?”

I also wonder whether RIM has reached out to CIOs and told them of a settlement plan or explained to them what the mysterious “workaround” technology is. Essentially, what would be the plan if the ban went into effect? Until earlier this week, RIM hadn’t said a word. But on Monday, Dec. 19, co-CEO Jim Balsillie wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Wall Street Journal that condemned NTP’s tactics of overburdening the U.S. Patent Office and for its “lust for money.” He also said that RIM was willing to settle the case. Again.

So where does this leave CIOs? John Nallin, UPS’s VP of IS responsible for business continuity, corporate repositories, technical architecture and telecommunications, says that UPS’s contingency plan is simple: “If the BlackBerry is gone, we’ll issue everybody a Treo and be done.” Nallin’s group maintains about 3,000 BlackBerrys and 1,000 Treos across the company. The split deployment is in place for precisely this type of business disaster. “That’s the reason we don’t want to be a ‘one anything’ company,” Nallin says. “You have no leverage.”

All this uncertainty has turned RIM into a ripe target. Its competitors (Microsoft, Nokia, Palm) are foolish not to jump all over the confusion and uncertainty that’s clouding RIM’s future. And they have. Many have steered clear of NTP’s patent problems by licensing NTP’s technology to avoid future litigation. Adding to the dark cloud over Waterloo, Gartner recently advised its clients to stop any business-critical BlackBerry deployments until the legal dust settles.

A December report from Forrester Research points out two things to consider. First, neither side will win if service is shut down and that RIM should settle ASAP because “it has more pressing strategic issues to address, with competition heating up from Microsoft and Nokia.” Second, as to the workaround, the report says: “For more than a year, RIM has suggested that it has been testing—successfully—some workaround solutions that don’t touch any of the disputed technologies. Let’s face it: If there were a viable workaround technology that could be quickly put in place, RIM could save a lot of time, money, and the worry of its customers and use it.” Good point.

Nallin, who uses a Treo, doesn’t seem too worried. “I don’t think it’s going to kill us,” he says. What about you and your company? Are you worried? And what contingency plans do you have in place?

Thomas Wailgum is a staff writer for CIO magazine, and invites your comments.