By Michael Arnone
Jan. 23, 2006
The thought of life without Research in Motion's BlackBerry - often
called "CrackBerries" for their addictive ease of use - makes many
owners of the handheld devices check the waiting list at the nearest
But the end could come next month. A federal appeals court judge is
expected to announce a decision in a patent feud over the ubiquitous
technology. The ruling could include shutting down BlackBerry service
in the United States.
Government contractors have come to depend on the handheld messaging
devices like they depend on their morning coffee. They rely on the
devices to communicate with their federal clients and one another.
BlackBerries provide users with great freedom and have changed the way
contractors work, said Chris Pate, director of mobile solutions at
GTSI and a self-described BlackBerry junkie.
Because the devices have become so ubiquitous, many contractors are
seriously worried about how they would cope if they suddenly lost
access to them.
Companies and federal agencies are consulting experts for advice on
preparing for the worst-case scenario. Ellen Daley, an analyst at
Forrester Research, said she has received more than 100 inquiries
during the past four weeks from customers, including contractors, who
are worried that they might lose their BlackBerry service.
But Daley and other analysts say that contractors should calm down.
Although the possible injunction is a real threat, many analysts
regard it as unlikely.
"I feel like they're worrying unnecessarily, but they are worrying,"
Daley said about the contractors.
"It's more emotional than anything," Pate said. His colleague, Scott
Keough, senior manager of enterprise software at GTSI, said people are
afraid to lose the flexibility and mobility they have taken for
granted since BlackBerries came on the market.
The microscopic media coverage of the legal case has made contractors
nervous about the future. "For all the details, it's hard to tell what
will happen," Pate said.
The heart of the argument
Two companies - RIM and NTP - each argue that they hold the original
patents on the BlackBerry's wireless e-mail technology. NTP has sued
RIM to get the credit and money it says it is due. RIM has encouraged
the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to re-evaluate the credibility of
NTP's patent claims.
The possibility of an injunction against RIM, forcing the company to
shut down its U.S. service, is the scenario that has contractors
panicked but which analysts believe to be unlikely - only a 10 percent
chance in Gartner Research's estimation. Forrester Research is even
more confident, giving the possibility only a 2 percent chance.
Feds could get exception
The federal government has requested that employees with
mission-critical responsibilities receive an exemption from an
injunction. Daley said many contractors are jumping on the government
bandwagon to ensure they keep their service to keep essential
government operations running.
Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said that in case of a shutdown,
the judge will create a strict rule defining which critical government
employees and contractors can keep their service.
But "it's tough to define what a government contractor is," Dulaney
said. Someone who works directly with federal agencies certainly
qualifies. But consider subcontractors or others who work less
directly with agencies and the waters grow murkier, he said. The judge
will have to come up with the formula.
If contractors are forbidden to use BlackBerries, it may make it
impossible for them to meet all of their contractual obligations, some
of which were agreed to with the assumption that the instant
communication provided by the devices would be available, Pate said.
"It's hard to say how far the line will be drawn," Pate said. If the
judge does not provide a generous definition of critical government
employees, "it would cause performance issues in a company our size."
In the unlikely event that RIM has to shut down U.S. mobile e-mail
operations, contractors would not have to go cold turkey. Any
injunctions would provide ample time - 30 to 60 days - to migrate to
new systems, Pate said. Many RIM customers already have continuity of
operations plans in place, he said.
Gartner predicts that the two most likely outcomes =97 35 percent chance
of either - are that RIM and NTP will settle or that the resolution
will take another 12 months to 18 months. Gartner foresees a 20
percent chance that RIM will use workaround plans that don't infringe
If RIM and NTP settle, it would likely mean no changes at all for
contractors, Dulaney said. RIM could potentially charge more for the
service to pay for the settlement but will likely eat those costs, he
"I'm not convinced that this is a total disaster for anyone," Dulaney
said. "It's just an inconvenience."
Contractors should prepare
The possibility that Research in Motion BlackBerry users in the United
States could lose their service may push federal agencies to look more
closely at their mobile communications plans, said Chris Pate,
director of mobile solutions at GTSI.
That is a good thing because many organizations may use BlackBerries
as a technological crutch, Pate said. BlackBerries work so well and
are so popular that some agencies have not created wireless
communication plans that encourage effective information technology
management or address workforce needs, he said. No organization should
rely on one technology so that its absence could ruin a communications
plan, he said.
No matter what happens, organizations that use BlackBerries should
assign one person to spend a week developing contingency plans, said
Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester Research.
The planner should:
* Identify and contact other vendors in case the companies need
to move to another technology.
* Develop a migration plan with a deployment timeline and
prioritized list of who would receive new devices.
* Identify purchasing locations, including existing vendors.
* Determine which wireless applications, other than e-mail clients,
employees want to access via mobile devices.
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