Crunch time for BlackBerry users

On Friday, a judge will decide if BlackBerry service is shut down in the U.S. The University of Texas San Antonio is making last minute preparations in case they lose service.

With three days left before BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) is back in court for another fray with NTP Inc., users are continuing to look into options in case a last-minute evacuation plan is needed to survive a potential nationwide shutdown.

RIM vs. NTP Timeline

Here's what's happened leading to Friday's court date:  

Nov. 13, 2001: NTP Inc. files a patent infringement suit against RIM in federal court.

Nov. 21, 2002: A federal jury sides with NTP, awarding the company $23.1 million in damages. That figure is based on 5.7% of RIM's sales.

May 23, 2003: U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer raises the royalty rate for NTP to 8.55%. Spencer also issues an injunction that could shut down BlackBerry in the U.S. The injunction is stayed as RIM appeals.

Dec. 14, 2004: The U.S. Appeals Court sides mostly with the lower court.  

March 16, 2005: RIM agrees to pay NTP a settlement worth $450 million.  

Sept. 28, 2005: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejects the five patents at the heart of NTP's suit against RIM.  

Oct. 21, 2005: The appeals court denies a motion by RIM to delay the case.  

Oct. 26, 2005: The U.S. Supreme Court denies RIM's motion for a delay.  

Nov. 30, 2005: Judge Spencer rejects the $450 million settlement. NTP asks for an injunction that would halt BlackBerry sales and service in the U.S.  

Dec. 7, 2005: Research and advisory firm, Gartner Inc., tells clients not to deploy BlackBerry and to look at alternatives.  

Jan. 23, 2006: The Supreme Court refuses to hear RIM's appeal.  

Feb. 9, 2006: RIM announces that it has designed and tested workaround software that can be installed in the event of a BlackBerry blackout. The company claims the workaround does not violate any of NTP's patents.  

Feb. 24, 2006: Judge Spencer will hear arguments and consider the injunction. If an injunction is issued, RIM has a 30-day window before the shutdown will be implemented.

One such user is the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), which has about 130 faculty and staff members who rely on BlackBerry for mobile and calendaring. The university has been using the devices for the last three or four years, and the majority of the 130 use the BlackBerry to keep in touch while on the road. Many will be lost without them.

"We're investigating what it will take [to install an alternative]," said Charlotte Colbert, UTSA's director of technology support services. "A good portion of our users really rely on them."

Colbert said the university has been looking into switching to Palm Treos, but so far hurdles have prevented the installation.

"Treo uses a completely different method of connectivity. It doesn't work the same way," she said, adding that the university has had trouble integrating Treos and the Microsoft Exchange e-mail system.

"With BlackBerry, we have a piece of software from RIM that lives on the server and pushes Exchange to the devices," she continued. "The Treo does things a little differently."

With Treos, she said, users would have to leave their desktops up and running to receive push e-mail, which is a security risk. Colbert and her staff are looking for a way to work around that and are far from throwing in the towel.

The preparation, Colbert said, has been going on since the news first broke that the judge presiding over the NTP vs. RIM patent infringement suit could issue an injunction that would shut down BlackBerry service in the U.S. The two companies have been sparring since 2001.

Virginia-based NTP claims to hold patents that Waterloo, Ont. -based RIM infringed upon to create its mobile e-mail platform. The five disputed patents held by NTP have since been rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, making a strong case for BlackBerry, though the judge does not have to consider that while making his ruling.

RIM originally offered NTP a nearly $500 million settlement, but that was thrown out. NTP later asked the judge for the injunction. The judge is expected to rule on the injunction Friday. If the judge rules to shut down BlackBerry, there would be a 30-day grace period before the screens go blank.

In the U.S., there are roughly 3 million BlackBerry users. Of those, 1.8 million are enterprise users, and 1.1 million are self-employed or work in small- to mid-sized businesses or small office/home-office environments. That leaves about 100,000 strictly personal BlackBerry users who do not use the service for any business needs.

With the threat of a blackout looming, RIM announced it has created workaround software that the company said would leave BlackBerrys up and running in the event of a shutdown, but many experts questioned whether enterprises would have enough time to install and deploy the re-worked BlackBerry platform without losing service, despite the 30-day grace period.

"Doing an upgrade on the BES [BlackBerry Enterprise Server] is going to take time for any IT department, and 30 days isn't enough for corporate IT to install a new version of solitaire, let alone a new version of a networked application like BES," said Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance. "Without proper testing in each enterprise IT environment, there's absolutely no way for anyone to know whether the workaround will deploy without a hitch."

Colbert said her staff knows little of the workaround, except what RIM released in a statement earlier this month. She agreed with Taylor that any workaround would need to be tested for seamless integration.

"If the BlackBerrys cease to work, nobody's going to have an immediate solution," she said. "We would have problems."

Colbert said that with all of the uncertainty, there is not much left to do but wait and look at possible alternatives. The Palm Treo, she said, is the only alternative UTSA has looked into because it is best suited for the staff.

Overall, however, she said the staff isn't too worried. Colbert said UTSA is going to be as prepared as they can be and will continue trying to implement support for Treos regardless of what happens in the court case.

"Like millions of others, [UTSA's users are] taking a wait-and-see attitude," she said.

Along with the struggle to implement an alternative platform, Colbert said she fears Treos may be impossible to come by if BlackBerry services are suspended. With 3 million BlackBerry users in the U.S., a solid portion would switch to Treo in the event of a shutdown, leaving many experts questioning if enough of the alternative devices are available.

For more information

Read our exclusive story on the cost of abandoning BlackBerry

Check out Daniel Taylor's Mobile Enterprise Weblog

Also, the cost to switch to a different mobile e-mail platform may be too much for the university to handle in one fell swoop. Some estimates indicated switching would cost anywhere from $845 to $1,000 per user. In UTSA's case, the cost would be between $109,850 and $130,000. The university phased in its BlackBerrys over a three-to-four-year period.

"It's really uncertain as to how the case is going to go," she said. "We're just trying to make sure our infrastructure is ready. We're getting the infrastructure ready so if a decision is made, we can make a decision ourselves."

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