Correction to This Article
A March 1 Business article about replacements for BlackBerry wireless e-mail service misstated the amount White & Case LLP would have to spend to replace its 1,900 devices. It would cost roughly $400,000, not $40,000.

Companies Contemplate Life Without BlackBerrys

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, 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 shutdown.

"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 system.

"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 possible.

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.

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