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BlackBerry workaround leaves users dangling on the vine

Research In Motion's announcement last week that its workaround is ready has many experts wondering if there will be time to install it, if BlackBerry service is suspended.

Research In Motion Ltd.'s (RIM) announcement last week that its workaround is locked and loaded to quell a possible court-ordered shutdown may have come too late, making it impossible for network managers to install and deploy the contingency plan in time.

Several experts said the workaround, which RIM said will be available for download for its 3 million U.S. users "at a later date," won't be released soon enough for companies with large BlackBerry deployments to implement.

Daniel Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, said RIM is sugarcoating the ease of rolling out the workaround software, not addressing what updates will be needed on the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, used by large companies across the nation.

"Doing an upgrade on the BES 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," Taylor said. "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."

According to Taylor, it isn't yet clear which version of BES is required to install the workaround, and RIM isn't saying whether enterprises will also have to upgrade BES to deploy it. The problem, he said, is if the workaround is only available for the newest version of BES, many companies would need to upgrade the server because most installed versions aren't the latest version. In that situation, the workaround installation would be BES upgrade plus the installation of a software patch on top of that upgrade.

"There is currently no information about these basic details," he said.

Jack Gold, founder and principal of J.Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm, said he has similar concerns, and added that RIM has yet to address them.

"What is involved in upgrading?" Gold asked. "What if there's a glitch? It's a risk. There's always a 'gotcha' someplace. There's no way to know what those gotchas are, who they'll affect and what that affect will be. What if it doesn't work quite the way it's supposed to?"

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 Thursday afternoon, RIM released a statement saying the much talked about workaround is ready. The company said it developed and tested software workaround designs for all BlackBerry handsets. The announcement came roughly two weeks before RIM is due back in court to argue against an injunction that could prompt a BlackBerry blackout in the U.S.

For the last four years, RIM has fought a vicious patent infringement suit brought by Virginia-based NTP Inc. NTP claims RIM violated several patents NTP holds in the U.S. After rejecting a $450 million dollar settlement late last year, NTP asked the presiding judge for an injunction that could suspend BlackBerry service in the U.S. The pair of companies is due in court again Feb. 24. If the injunction is issued, there will be a 30-day grace period before the plug is pulled.

Within hours of the threat of an injunction, RIM said it was creating a workaround that would keep BlackBerrys up and running. Last week, after three months of silence, RIM said that workaround was good to go, but released few additional details.

RIM officials are not answering specific questions regarding the workaround or the possible injunction.

"RIM's workaround provides a contingency for our customers and partners and a counterbalance to NTP's threats," said RIM chairman and Co-CEO Jim Balsillie in a statement. "This will hopefully lead to more reasonable negotiations since NTP risks losing all future royalties if the workaround is implemented."

The workaround, RIM claims, will not be in violation of NTP's patents and will be released as a software update called Multi-Mode Edition Software. The software will be available for download in the event of an injunction, RIM said.

"RIM invested significant engineering effort to develop workaround designs that remain invisible to users and maintain the existing platform benefits for system administrators, application developers and network operators, while modifying the necessary underlying elements of the BlackBerry message delivery system to be fundamentally different from the NTP patent claims," the company said.

So far, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has rejected all of the disputed patents, but the judge is not required to consider those when ruling on the potential injunction.

Regardless of RIM's lengthy workaround statement, its lack of detail still has many experts warning caution. And the claim from RIM that the workaround will "remain invisible" has raised even more questions.

"Is it really quick and easy to deploy and install and is it legal?" Gold asked. "Let's see what exactly it does and how it works before we get excited about it. Everyone should be skeptical. It's an unknown."

That unknown, Gold said, could be vexing for BlackBerry's 3 million U.S. users, who could lose service. Of that 3 million, 1.8 million are enterprise users, 1.1 million work in small offices, home offices or are self-employed, and the remainder -- about 100,000 -- are strictly personal users.

Avi Greengart, principal analyst with Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis said making all corporate users download new software could be a major hindrance.

"Nothing is seamless," Greengart said. "Simply forcing 3 million subscribers to download new software is a major inconvenience, and that alone could be a reason not to do it."

Kathryn Weldon, principal analyst of enterprise mobility with Current Analysis, also questioned if there are any unstated issues other than the intrusive download and installation process.

"My first thoughts were that this is really good for RIM, but why don't they just implement it now rather than make it a contingency plan?" Weldon asked. "If it's exactly the same functionality, wouldn't that prevent any future litigation and instantly assuage customers?"

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.
Daniel Taylor
Managing DirectorMobile Enterprise Alliance

 Plus, Weldon said, RIM may have waited too long to announce the contingency plan, failing to ease the tension of nervous users who are scrambling to replace BlackBerrys with one of the many alternatives, such as those from Visto, Seven Networks, Good Technology Inc., and Microsoft, which just announced plans to offer push mail. BlackBerry's jam has fueled a feeding frenzy of competitors vying for shaky RIM users.

"Also some of the harm as already been done as customers have been looking around at competitive solutions and all the other middleware vendors have been enjoying themselves positioning to supplant RIM," Weldon said, later adding, it "might make one run to Microsoft in spite of oneself."

Greengart agreed that the biggest benefactor from the patent infringement flap could indeed be RIM's competitors.

"RIM's top managers, engineers and marketing people are focused on NTP instead of Microsoft, Nokia, Good, Seven, Visto, and where the market is heading," he said. "A workaround simply prolongs the status quo. This massive distraction is incredibly dangerous."

And the competition has taken notice, many of them offering themselves as a BlackBerry replacement.

One such company, CallTower Inc., said it has a BlackBerry alternative in its CallTower Collaboration Suite, a voice and data collaboration system that the company said, "helps IT directors and business owners who use or manage users of BlackBerry devices, alleviate their concerns about an interruption or elimination of BlackBerry service."

Mark Harris, vice president of marketing for the San Mateo, Calif.-based CallTower, said the suite provides access to e-mail, voicemail, faxes and internal voice messages from a PC, cell phone, traditional phone or another mobile device. The suite can also forward calls to any device or phone, provide unified messaging and text-to-speech reading of e-mail. The service is available on Windows Mobile Devices like Pocket PC or the Palm Treo. CallTower supports both Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync and Good Technology with hosted built-in, real-time messaging and e-mail.

"CallTower also provides hosted Microsoft Exchange, so companies do not have to create a separate Microsoft Exchange server for their BlackBerry devices," according to a press release.

Harris said IT staff never has to touch the devices, and users receive upgrades and new software wirelessly.

But Todd Kort, principal analyst for Gartner Inc., said despite all of the alternatives coming out of the woodwork, most of BlackBerry's loyal and often addicted users will stay put.

"There is no doubt that many BlackBerry users are now evaluating or even pilot-testing alternative solutions, which are prudent for those organizations with a low or medium tolerance for risk," he said. "But very few are jumping ship."

Some factors keeping BlackBerry users in place are the high cost of switching to a new service -- $800 to $1,000 per user by some estimates -- and the possibility that the injunction will never come to fruition.

According to Kort, RIM has maintained its stranglehold on mobile e-mail. In the forth quarter of 2005, Kort said, RIM shipped 1.3 million BlackBerry devices. By the end of this month, Kort suggested that RIM will have about 5 million subscribers worldwide, with nearly 4 million of them in the U.S.

It is that dominance, Greengart said, that could ultimately keep BlackBerry as the premier mobile e-mail service and help them stave off future litigation. In the end, however, RIM has to be more forthcoming with its workaround plans and ultimately let the users decide.

"By providing some real details of the workaround, RIM may convince some IT managers that they will be taken care of regardless of what [the judge] does," Greengart said. "But what it really does is buy RIM time. RIM believes -- because the USPTO has told it so -- that the NTP patents will all be invalidated. It's kind of hard to force a judgment on RIM for violating invalid patents, so if RIM can stretch things out long enough, it may be able to crush NTP and not owe it a Canadian cent."

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