RIM faces communications difficulties in patent lawsuit

WATERLOO, CANADA: BlackBerry devices - which allow for wireless access to e-mail and other programs - are so addictive that they're often referred to as CrackBerry.

WATERLOO, CANADA: BlackBerry devices - which allow for wireless access to e-mail and other programs - are so addictive that they're often referred to as CrackBerry.

But users might soon find themselves going though withdrawal if parent Research in Motion (RIM) loses its patent struggle with NETwork Technology (NTP), which claims RIM is using its wireless email technology.

A decision last year leaving some of the patent-infringement rulings favoring NTP in tact could lead to damages and an injunction, shutting down service in the US.

A hearing is scheduled for February 24, at which time a district court judge will determine if the injunction will go forward.

Much of the media coverage has painted doomsday scenarios about what could happen to not just RIM but customers and the national economy if the service goes dark.

Even competitors are chiming in, taking advantage of concerns from RIM's customers and partners about the company's viability.

The only voice that seems to be missing from the public hand wringing is RIM's.

"The NTP issue is quite complicated and we are working under a number of legal constraints," said Jerry Johnson, an EVP with Brodeur Worldwide, RIM's agency. RIM declined to comment. "That said, RIM is continually communicating with carrier partners and enterprise customers and is keeping them abreast of plans and developments."

But both RIM and NTP are severely restricted by what they can say publicly, as the case winds its way through the courts. So as the case also works its way through the court of public opinion, RIM can only watch and worry.

One source close to RIM says the judge in the case has admonished both sides to maintain a low profile.

In the corporate wireless e-mail market, RIM has 4.3 million subscribers in a market of about 6 million, according to CNET. And as analysts are predicting the market to explode to 125 million users over the next few years, RIM must certainly have its eye not just on its current customer base, but also those potential customers watching the trial.

"Whatever happens, they're going to have to do some big public outreach," said Wes Brown, a partner with Los Angeles-based Iceology, a customer research and trend firm. "They won't come out of it with just a little damage. Either way, they're going to need to reach out."

Even if the court rules for RIM, there will be a portion of current customers angry that RIM dragged them through several years of legal wrangling and uncertainty, instead of settling.

And then there are customers who need to be reassured that RIM is taking steps to make sure this doesn't happen again.

"There will be potential customers who only know the company from this news, and they will be hesitant to buy the product," added Brown.

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