The BlackBerry of The Future

UPDATED: Collaborative environments, IM presence, and — oh yeah — workarounds to
address its patent troubles that threaten its BlackBerry network with a
shutdown in the United States.

These are some of the agenda items for Research In Motion and its
embattled BlackBerry network.

Faced with a looming injunction that would shut down its service in the
U.S., and ongoing litigation over a patent-infringement tussle with NTP, the
maker of the wildly popular wireless e-mail service said it has developed
and tested software workaround designs for all of its BlackBerry handsets
that work on its converged voice/data network in the United States.

The fixes could help RIM dodge a bullet, should a ruling on its patent
fight not go its way.

The usual legal disclaimers that are a part of RIM’s public statements
these days apply here, too. RIM said it “believes it has strong legal and
factual arguments opposing an injunction,” but has worked up the workarounds
as a contingency plan in case an injunction hits.

The company said there are only nine claims relating to three NTP patents
remaining in dispute in this litigation, and those claims are only directed
to specific implementations of certain aspects of the BlackBerry products
and services.

As a result, RIM said it has been able to modify its underlying
BlackBerry message-delivery system to “work around” the NTP patent claims.

Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of RIM, also said RIM is “pragmatic
and reasonable” in its willingness to strike a settlement with NTP “while
protecting RIM’s business and partners.”

His statement also called
“untenable” patent-holder and legal adversary NTP’s public offer of a
“reasonable” license.

“It comprises illusory protection for RIM and its partners and requires a
lump-sum payment for the theoretical life of the patents even though the U.S.
Patent Office is expected to nullify them.”

With legal maneuvering still an ongoing part of both companies’ daily
existence, the workaround at least addresses concerns that BlackBerry
customers have raised over whether they would be cut off from the wireless
e-mail that has moved into mission-critical status with millions of
enterprise customers, including members of Congress and their staffs.

RIM said its workaround provides a contingency for customers and provides
a “counterbalance to NTP’s threats.”

The latest development comes about two weeks ahead of another court date
on the ongoing patent dispute between RIM and NTP. That’s when the courts
decide whether to impose an injunction that could ultimately pull the plug
in all of RIM’s U.S. messaging services.

U.S. District Judge James Spencer
is scheduled to hear testimony from both sides on Feb. 24.

Despite the legal wrangling, RIM firmly believes there is life after litigation and is looking to expand its popular BlackBerry device and service.

David Werezak, RIM’s vice president of enterprise business, told internetnews.com that the Blackberry platform will evolve beyond current “classic uses,” which primarily center on e-mail.

One key effort is to expand the BlackBerry’s use as an extension to server-based CRM systems, pushing filtered information out to sales and field service workers.

This includes expanding and refining relationships with CRM developers, such as Siebel Systems, SAP and Salesforce.com, to keep pace with a shift in the enterprise toward a more personalized environment, as well as service-based, on-demand applications.

“To successfully implement this on a handheld, you really have to distill it down to just a few things a single person needs in the field,” said Werezak.

RIM will also enhance mobile CRM systems by integrating outside services and software with CRM information to offer a richer flow of information to specific individuals.

This includes relying on a range of communications architectures from cellular and Wi-Fi to personal networking Bluetooth, to gather different streams of information.

It also involves merging and reformatting information from sources, such as Google, which last month started offering Google Talk for messaging and Google Local for BlackBerry users to view maps and satellite imagery.

“We continue to build relationships and linkages with partners in distributing value, systems integration and services,” said Werezak.

Traditional e-mail messaging remains BlackBerry’s bread and butter in terms of the primary use for its handheld devices.

However, increasing demands from the enterprise for more capable instant messaging and team-based collaborative environments is changing the way the company foresees the BlackBerry of the future.

Rather than be a platform that is designed to handle e-mail, quick message exchanges and attachments, tomorrow’s BlackBerry will be more of an executive information and reactive decision tool.

“One of the real advantages of IM today is that it is not just one-to-one, but one-to-many,” said Werezak.

So, the goal is to build upon that real-time teamwork approach to develop IM systems that drive collaboration and focus on such things as presence, “which shows who is available, what they are working on and if they are able to talk.”

Messaging security has always been a strong suit of the Blackberry, and one of the reasons why the system is widely used in financial and government applications.

The company is looking to build upon that infrastructure by working with third parties to develop solutions that transform the BlackBerry into a personal authentication device that can be used for applications other than electronic mail and messaging.

Government and military contractors are, for example, already using BlackBerry systems outfitted with Bluetooth-enabled card readers as proximity authentication systems.

Instead of swiping a magnetic card key or scanning a chip-implanted ID, an individual would simply use a specially equipped Blackberry to gain entrance to a restricted area or access to a secure computer terminal.

An extension of these systems might involve the use of radio frequency ID (RFID) technology or short-range Zigbee networking alternatives.

This hints that RIM may look to develop “purpose-built” Blackberry-type devices that are designed for specific applications or industry segments, although Werezak stops short of saying that may be the case.

“It really depends on the application of the device,” he said. “We don’t target a platform at one particular industry, but you can take it a step further and look at the function of applications and what partnerships you are lining up.” It’s all about “what you are bringing to the equation.”

Of course, RIM will continue to invest in the smartphone market by evolving its own platform and expanding licensing activities with other handheld systems and cellular handset manufacturers.

Just this week, the company announced that it was extending its relationship with Sony Ericsson to offer BlackBerry connectivity to its Sony Ericsson P990 and M600 phones, which use the Symbian operating system. The phones will be demonstrated next week at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona.

Last year, RIM also signed an agreement with Palm to allow its Treo 650 users to connect with BlackBerry e-mail and calendar software via the Blackberry Connect conduit.

Werezak said there will be more such deals over the next year or two. “I think it’s understood we won’t manufacture every conceivable type of form factor or style, but we still want people who choose those different types of devices to still have the Blackberry experience.”

Does this mean that RIM is becoming more of a software and services type company, and may eventually take the same route as Palm and spin off its hardware and software units as independent business units?

Not likely, said Werezak, who added that all three of the company’s business segments — hardware, software and connectivity services — are successful but closely linked with each other.

Still, “all three also have good growth opportunities.”

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