BlackBerry may soon come a cropper

With Microsoft's plans for Direct Push email to mobile devices already becoming reality, patents could be the least of Research in Motion's troubles

Research In Motion has had a tough 2005. Delays in shipments of the BlackBerry devices that provide access to its services was bad enough, without patent lawsuits to contend with as well.

The news today that one patent claim against the company has been rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office should come as small solace to RIM and its customers. Arguments over the rights and wrongs of software patents aside, the patents of the company bringing the action, NTP, are only being thrown into question because another company appears to have prior rights; RIM remains in the same precarious position.

Next year, RIM may face a new threat. With the launch of Exchange 12, Microsoft is focusing on mobile data; specifically, how to push data to handheld devices. It is currently lobbying makers of handheld devices — both phones and PDAs — to implement its Direct Push protocol, which appeared in Exchange Server 2003 SP2 last month, and which will be a major feature in E12.

With Direct Push, we are told, users of Exchange will see emails appear in their handsets almost instantaneously — much like the experience that BlackBerry users currently enjoy. This means that, because of the way Outlook uses caching and intermittent polling, emails are likely to reach handsets before they appear in Outlook on the desktop. Combined with the ability not only to remotely wipe data on a lost or stolen handset and the potential even to set up policies such that data is wiped if the wrong pin number is entered, the new mobile Exchange clients will be seen by many companies as a viable alternative to BlackBerry.

Of course this depends largely on Microsoft's ability to provide the seamless experience that has created a generation of 'CrackBerry' users. Microsoft does have a pack of cards stacked in its favour: for a start, it has a list of licensees that includes Palm, Motorola and Symbian.

Then there is the network. RIM has agreements with carriers, which allow mail to be routed from a BlackBerry device through to a RIM operations centre, and then to the BlackBerry server in the customer's environment. If those RIM operations centres are closed down as a result of a patent lawsuit, there are going to be a lot of companies dealing with withdrawal symptoms. It is a complex model compared to Microsoft's, which just needs any old IP network between the device and the Exchange server. Microsoft's will require no third parties; no subscription outside the data tariff for the phone. If Microsoft gets it right, it may find itself with a very tasty alternative to the BlackBerry.

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