By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 1, 2006
Eugene Stein is thinking about Plan B for the 1,900 BlackBerry e-mail
devices under his charge that could be rendered useless if their
maker, Research in Motion Ltd., gets slapped with a court-ordered
"It'd be pretty significant," said Stein, chief technology officer for
law firm White & Case LLP. His backup plan for keeping the firm's
employees connected to wireless e-mail is to use more Palm Treo
devices with Good Technology Inc. software, a rival to the BlackBerry
"I would have to use all my technical guys" and sink at least $40,000
into buying new devices, he said. "I can't buy and replace them all in
one shot," but he has secured assurances from vendors that he will be
able to order some Treos overnight, putting them in the hands of
attorneys traveling internationally or working on key deals first.
After that, he would experiment with the software upgrade RIM says it
has developed, or replace the remaining BlackBerrys as soon as
It's hard not to resent RIM for not resolving its legal issues, Stein
said. "They shouldn't have put me in this position."
Many BlackBerry users are in limbo, awaiting a federal judge's
decision about whether to shut down the company's U.S. operations for
infringing on patents. But life is even harder for people like Stein,
who manage information technology and have to make educated guesses
about the outcome of the case, then make contingency plans.
There are lots of factors to consider. At a hearing last week, U.S.
District Judge James R. Spencer indicated that he would honor a 2002
jury decision finding RIM guilty of infringing McLean-based NTP Inc.'s
patents. At the same time, on the morning of Friday's hearing, the
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the validity of the second
of the five relevant patents it originally granted to NTP -- a move
RIM was hoping would sway public and judicial opinion in its favor.
If all other legal measures fail and the judge orders service cut off
for most non-government users -- roughly two-thirds of the 3.2 million
U.S. subscribers -- RIM has said it has a software solution that will
work around its patent problem. But information technology officers
like Stein haven't had a chance to test it yet.
Iron Age Corp.'s chief information officer, Drew Farris, is divided
about what to do with the 150 BlackBerry e-mail devices that sales
executives at his specialty shoe business rely on.
On the one hand, Farris thinks RIM will settle its long-running patent
dispute before a possible court-ordered shutdown. That would spare
Farris's company from having to replace its devices at an estimated
cost of $1,500 per user for equipment, software and training.
On the other hand, it may not.
"Based on what I've read and seen, I'm at a loss; I'd say it's 50-50"
for either outcome, said Farris, who follows the case closely on
Internet news sites and newsletters.
RIM's problems have been good for competitors' business, including
Good and Visto Corp., both of which have received hundreds of
inquiries from companies looking for alternatives, and both of which
have licensing agreements with NTP.
But most businesses are still waiting for the judge's decision, said
Todd Kort, an analyst with Gartner Inc. who said he has talked to 75
to 80 technology officers since November about their contingency
"They're under a fair amount of pressure from their users, and they're
getting pressure from above" to make sure systems keep running
uninterrupted, Kort said. "But of those, only four or five are in the
process of switching service," because changing out the service is
expensive and time-consuming, he said.
Among other things, longtime BlackBerry users are used to the software
and the ergonomics of their palm-size devices, so deploying something
new would mean losing productivity while people figure out a new
Kort remains optimistic that his clients won't have to do that. He
said RIM is far more likely to either settle or deploy its work-around
than shut down service.
John Stevenson is placing his bets on the work-around. He retired this
week as chief information officer at Sharp Electronics' U.S. division,
but not before having to decide what to do about the 300 BlackBerrys
used by company executives.
"Do we go back to the old way of doing things -- using cell phones,
text messaging, and laptop computers," or should the company think
about buying a new set of devices at great expense, Stevenson
wondered, and he consulted his peers through a trade group, the
Society for Information Management. For now, he said, "we're counting
on a BlackBerry work-around. Is that a dangerous plan without a Plan
John Jones is among those information technology executives who think
the case won't amount to a hill of beans. "I just see this going in
RIM's favor the entire way," said Jones, who is vice president for
information technology at Pulver.com Inc., an Internet telephony and
technology conference company.
But even Jones has a backup plan. "Right now my colleague is taking a
look at the new Microsoft push e-mail technology -- just in case."
=A9 2006 The Washington Post Company
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