As news that Research in Motion had settled its patent dispute with NTP was pushed around the Internet late last week, the collective sigh of the company must have been palpable. It was a sigh that would have been echoed by customers, many of whom had been waiting with some incredulity to find out whether their service could really be cut off by a company in Virginia with a fistful of patents.
Sighs might have turned to gasps as eyes moved on to wonder at the size of the settlement — $612.5m
Regardless, the money has been paid and will remain paid even if NTP's patents are finally confirmed by the USPTO to be without merit. RIM's network is intact; service can carry on as normal.
But there are other threats on the horizon which RIM cannot afford to ignore because its customers — who must no doubt be slightly fazed to realise how close their addiction came to being cut off — will not ignore those threats; to customers, those threats mean choice.
RIM has been one of the mobile success stories of the last decade. Much in the way that Apple stole the mobile music market from under Sony's snoozing nose, RIM has become the de facto standard when it comes to mobile email; Microsoft and IBM's Lotus division are nowhere to be seen. RIM has around 4.3 million subscribers, out of an estimated 6 to 10 million mobile email users worldwide.
But there is still a massive untapped market up for grabs — some estimates put the number of corporate email inboxes globally at 650 million. Given those kind of numbers it's not hard to see why NTP was keen to pursue its patent case and, more importantly for RIM in the future, why Microsoft has finally stirred from its mobile slumbers.
While RIM may have come out of the NTP case bloody but relatively unbowed, the hand-to-hand fighting in this arena is far from over. Microsoft made clear its intentions for taking what it sees as its rightful slice of the mobile pie at the 3GSM World Congress last month in Barcelona. Finnish handset giant Nokia is also gunning for a share following its acquisition last year of number two mobile email player Intellisync. Neither Nokia nor Microsoft uses a network that is susceptible to threats of closure by patent owners — a fact that will not be lost on customers.
So RIM really needs to start offering something new. The company is smart enough to realise that the real battle is not for email, but for mobile information. RIM claims that it is already well on its way to diversifying and that around 60 percent of its enterprise customers already use their BlackBerry for other services such as mobile Internet, field sales applications and CRM.
But Microsoft is also aware of the bigger picture and is hoping that its alliance with multiple hardware providers, the scale it brings to the market and its ability to port its desktop based applications to the mobile world will enable it to make up for its slow start.
The fate of those companies that have seen Microsoft stake a claim in their niche is usually not a happy one. RIM will only refrain from breathing its last breath so long as it can continue to keep ahead of the pack, and that means living up to its name.