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.
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 plans.
"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 system.
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 C? Maybe."
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."