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Despite Reprieve, BlackBerry Shutdown Threat Still Looms For Users

Companies that rely on the devices are deploying alternatives and preparing to roll out software patches from vendor Research In Motion. But the change will be expensive for many. RIM, meanwhile, is scrambling to avert a shutdown.

While U.S. District Judge James Spencer declined to issue an immediate injunction on Friday that would prevent Research In Motion Ltd. from selling its BlackBerry devices and service in the United States, millions of users are still not safe from a possible shutdown of the service.

Judge Spencer held a hearing in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia, which examined NTP Inc.'s claims that RIM infringed on its wireless E-mail patents. After numerous court hearings and RIM's failed attempt to have the case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Friday's hearing ended with more uncertainty. Judge Spencer didn't issue an immediate injunction, but said RIM had violated NTP's patents. He would issue a decision on an injunction as soon as possible, he said.

Meanwhile, many BlackBerry users are putting together contingency plans in case the judge changes his mind in the coming weeks.

Construction management and general contracting firm Barton Malow Co. has relied on the BlackBerry service for nearly two years and deployed the devices to 60 of its workers, including company executives, business developers, and project managers. "BlackBerrys are really mission-critical for our line of business, so you can imagine the impact of a shutdown," says Barton Malow's CIO, Phil Go.

Barton Malow, however, is better prepared than most other businesses that still believe an injunction will be an unlikely outcome of RIM and NTP's patent litigation lawsuit. Barton Malow already put together a contingency plan. The company began testing Treo and Samsung mobile devices with Good Technology's wireless E-mail service. "Our back end is ready, and we plan to transition our workers from the BlackBerry if there is an injunction," says Go.

But the change won't be cheap. Go estimates it will cost about $1,000 a person to deploy new devices. Costs will include license fees, server software, user training, and purchasing the actual devices.

Earlier last week, Judge Spencer rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Justice to hold additional proceedings to explore the possibility of exempting government users from the injunction. The Justice Department filed a statement saying a BlackBerry shutdown would be detrimental to government users.

In a separate effort, RIM asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to re-reexamine eight of NTP's patents, five of which NTP believes RIM violated. All NTP patents have already been rejected by the Patent Office in initial and secondary re-examinations. Last week, the Patent Office issued a final rejection of one of the patents, but that ruling didn't help RIM in court on Friday.

BlackBerry users could continue using the service by deploying a software workaround, which RIM promised to release if an injunction was issued. RIM says it would preload the software on new BlackBerry devices before they're shipped to customers, and existing users would be able to install the software.

That's exactly what Unifi Inc., a global manufacturer of yarns and related raw materials, has planned. "Our level of nervousness came down a little after RIM released news of the workaround," says Unifi's VP and CIO, Ben Holder. Although Unifi explored other options like replacing BlackBerrys with similar devices, it settled on the workaround option instead.

Indiana University currently has 445 faculty and staff BlackBerry users and also plans to implement RIM's workaround software if necessary. This will involve updating its BlackBerry Enterprise server with the BlackBerry Multi-Mode Edition patch, as well as providing the user base with documentation on how to install the workaround, says Sue Workman, director of user support at Indiana University. "At this point, we will not recommend our users switch their contracts to a different device," she says.

But a workaround may not be necessary. The U.S. District Court will likely issue an order for an injunction in about a month, says John Rabena, a partner at Sughrue Mion, an intellectual property law firm. "A grace period will give RIM and NTP another few months to settle the case, and I foresee that they will," he says. In the meantime, users shouldn't see a drop in service.

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