RIM CEO: 'China's RedBerry is no threat'

Mike Lazaridis speaks on the company's litigious spell, and on heading into China

Time was, RIM was synonymous with dodgy thumbs and exec envy. Now it seems the Canadian company is more renowned for its lawyers' bills than its products.

Back in March, RIM finally put to bed its long-running patent dispute with NTP and all the shutdown predictions that loomed alongside. Then mobile email company Visto got in on the act and is threatening a BlackBerry shutdown if an agreement isn't reached in its patent quarrel. So has RIM had enough of being the tech industry's favourite courtroom staple?

"People are getting fed up with it," said Mike Lazaridis, RIM's founder and co-chief executive.

Customers however are sticking with RIM, Lazaridis said, despite warnings from Gartner that enterprises should resist deploying the BlackBerry for mission critical applications during the NTP patent saga. "They chose wisely to stick with us... With the tests we ran and the feedback we were getting, they were less than impressed [with rivals' offerings]."

The NTP settlement may have come too early for the BlackBerry maker as it followed a ruling which found that federal courts shouldn't issue permanent injunctions against companies who have been found guilty of infringing patents (NTP's claim against RIM). The ruling was a blow to "patent trolls" — companies that earn their crust from lawsuits predicated on patents they don't use in their day-to-day business.

Lazaridis said: "The Supreme Court ruled a little late on the substance of what we were standing up for," adding the $612m £324m hit from the settlement was "taking one on the chin for our customers".

With a potential market of "hundreds of millions of devices" at stake, according to Brian Bogosian, head of Visto, it's no wonder the mobile email scene is so litigious.

Now RIM is hoping to engage the competition on a new front in the mobile email battle: China. RIM announced earlier this month it is planning to launch the BlackBerry service in the country with its largest operator, China Mobile.

As a recent research note from analyst house Gartner points out about RIM's Chinese ambitions: "Pricing will be an important factor in service uptake." The similarly named RedBerry service from state-owned operator China Unicom offers email for less than 50p per month — a price RIM is likely to find hard to match.

But it's not a fair comparison, says Lazaridis. "How can you say the two things are closely related [enough] to apply apples-to-apples pricing?... The only thing that's similar is the name. [The RedBerry] is a long way from the sophistication of the BlackBerry system."

Talking of apples to apples, Gartner said in the same research note: "RIM faces strong competition in this emerging space from several vendors, including Nokia." While RIM is happy to show off analyst figures that reveal it's bossing the PDA space, isn't it time for the device manufacturer to start comparing itself and its numbers to the likes of Nokia?

After all, today's smartphone functionality will more than likely end up in tomorrow's bog-standard, ubiquitous handhelds. Does RIM have it in it to see the BlackBerry go the same way? At the moment, according to research from NPD, it's in joint ninth-place with Palm — and that's in the US, one of its strongholds.

Lazaridis said: "This class of device — whether it's BlackBerry or another device — it will happen. Consumers are demanding more functionality.

"How long will it take and who'll be the leader? It's not something that's easy to determine and it would be foolish to try."