Unique solutions present unique problems

Sometimes the worst vulnerability in a service is entirely legal, as US BlackBerry users know. Foresight and an open mind can minimise that risk

Uncertainty might add spice to sport and dash to drama, but it's most unwelcome in enterprise IT. American BlackBerry users are certainly not happy with the confusion surrounding their service, even assuming they can follow what's going on.

There are patent infringement claims against Research In Motion that could close the US system down next, even though those patents have been practically dismissed by the patent office. The courts are fed up, and seem inclined to hand the company's head on a platter to the plaintiffs. Yet RIM says it has a software fix that will circumvent the whole issue, but is curiously reluctant to deploy it — or even reveal what it is. Corporate America is certainly getting the message, and the message is this: steer clear.

Does this mean Microsoft's Exchange 12 mobile messaging system is a better bet? After all, details of usability and feature sets have little importance if your email system is liable to be shut down by an irate man with a gavel — and Microsoft has a long and well-funded history of avoiding the worst consequences of patent violations.

Even so, adopting a proprietary solution of any kind ignores one of the most important rules of practical engineering: wherever possible, second source. Do not design in a unique component, do not put yourself under the control of a single supplier — or, as in RIM's case, at risk from attacks on that supplier.

One answer is open standards, which exist precisely to encourage the sort of diversity that circumvents single supplier risk. This is especially true when the intellectual property behind the standards is known and explicitly made available: nothing can guarantee that someone somewhere won't make a ridiculous claim, but you'll be part of a community of suppliers and users. That's a very different animal to take on in the courts than a single company.

It remains to be seen whether GPL 3's patent limitation clauses can create an open software environment that is as robust as open standards, but RIM's tribulations show that such ideas are tremendously important. If you want to minimise uncertainty, keep your options open.