I’ve been monitoring the BlackBerry e-mail patent fight as a problem that will work its way through the courts and be solved someday. But, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear Research in Motion's appeal this week, I’m beginning to worry — just a little.
I’ve been using a BlackBerry to do my mobile e-mail for more than six years; I can’t really remember life without it. My first BlackBerry was shaped like a pager with a tiny keyboard on the bottom. It worked perfectly from the start and soon I had to remind myself that answering urgent messages while driving was not a great idea.
My current BlackBerry is the wonderful 8700c. It not only does my e-mail but it also surfs the Web faster than any other handheld device I’ve tried. It also shows the real Web page — not just an all-text version.
The Supreme Court's action means the battle heads back to a trial judge in Richmond, Va., who is presiding over the patent infringement case against Canadian-based Research in Motion brought by a tiny U.S. holding company, NTP. The judge could impose an injunction blocking BlackBerry use among thousands of users in the United States — including many businesses and federal government and law enforcement employees.
RIM has been trying anything and everything to avoid this, from challenging the patents that NTP is suing over, to veiled threats that since BlackBerry servers reside in Canada, RIM is not subject to U.S. legal action. It's made the most progress not in court but at the U.S. Patent Office, which is in the process of researching the validity of each of the patents in question. So far they’ve been ruling against NTP. That’s a good thing for RIM.
But the entire patent review process will take another year or so. That’s bad for RIM. It means the court could rule against RIM in the next few weeks for violating patents that the U.S. Patent Office could decide are null and void — but not until after BlackBerry service has been ordered turned off in the United States. And of course, NTP has announced that they’ll appeal any patent ruling that may go against them. More delays.
The smart thing for the U.S. courts to do would be to delay the decision on whether RIM has infringed upon NTP’s patents until the other branch of the U.S. government rules on whether those patents are valid in the first place. But, I’m not a legal scholar — just a rabid BlackBerry fan.
I’m also a realist. While RIM claims it has a software "workaround" that could keep the service up even in the face of an injunction, it's unclear how well it would work. So, I've been sniffing out alternatives.
Portable e-mail devices which use Windows Mobile/Portable Outlook have gotten a lot better over the years and could be a workable alternative. The most recent of these run on Windows Mobile OS 5 and are quite good. (MSNBC is a Microsoft – NBC joint venture.) You can read more in-depth reviews of a few phones worth considering here and here.
That said, none of these are perfect replacements for the BlackBerry. Unlike RIM’s devices, which always update your e-mail constantly, Windows Mobile devices can be set for constantly or every 5, 10, 15, 30, 60, 120 minutes, etc. However, setting them for anything more frequent than every 15 minutes jeopardizes your battery life in a serious way.
With regular use, Windows Mobile device batteries last a day or so per charge. Palm 700’s battery is good for two days. BlackBerry batteries, however, last three to five days. That makes a big difference when you’re on the road.
So for now I’m waiting to see how the court battles turn out — hoping that the U.S. courts do the right thing (and do it quickly) — ending all this fuss.