Contractors told to relax about BlackBerry

Analysts say feared shutdown not likely

The thought of life without Research in Motion's BlackBerry — often called "CrackBerries" for their addictive ease of use — makes many owners of the handheld devices check the waiting list at the nearest rehab clinic.

But the end could come next month. A federal appeals court judge is expected to announce a decision in a patent feud over the ubiquitous technology. The ruling could include shutting down BlackBerry service in the United States.

Government contractors have come to depend on the handheld messaging devices like they depend on their morning coffee. They rely on the devices to communicate with their federal clients and one another. BlackBerries provide users with great freedom and have changed the way contractors work, said Chris Pate, director of mobile solutions at GTSI and a self-described BlackBerry junkie.

Because the devices have become so ubiquitous, many contractors are seriously worried about how they would cope if they suddenly lost access to them.

Companies and federal agencies are consulting experts for advice on preparing for the worst-case scenario. Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester Research, said she has received more than 100 inquiries during the past four weeks from customers, including contractors, who are worried that they might lose their BlackBerry service.

But Daley and other analysts say that contractors should calm down. Although the possible injunction is a real threat, many analysts regard it as unlikely.

"I feel like they're worrying unnecessarily, but they are worrying," Daley said about the contractors.

"It's more emotional than anything," Pate said. His colleague, Scott Keough, senior manager of enterprise software at GTSI, said people are afraid to lose the flexibility and mobility they have taken for granted since BlackBerries came on the market.

The microscopic media coverage of the legal case has made contractors nervous about the future. "For all the details, it's hard to tell what will happen," Pate said.

The heart of the argument

Two companies — RIM and NTP — each argue that they hold the original patents on the BlackBerry's wireless e-mail technology. NTP has sued RIM to get the credit and money it says it is due. RIM has encouraged the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to re-evaluate the credibility of NTP's patent claims.

The possibility of an injunction against RIM, forcing the company to shut down its U.S. service, is the scenario that has contractors panicked but which analysts believe to be unlikely — only a 10 percent chance in Gartner Research's estimation. Forrester Research is even more confident, giving the possibility only a 2 percent chance.

Feds could get exception

The federal government has requested that employees with mission-critical responsibilities receive an exemption from an injunction. Daley said many contractors are jumping on the government bandwagon to ensure they keep their service to keep essential government operations running.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said that in case of a shutdown, the judge will create a strict rule defining which critical government employees and contractors can keep their service.

But "it's tough to define what a government contractor is," Dulaney said. Someone who works directly with federal agencies certainly qualifies. But consider subcontractors or others who work less directly with agencies and the waters grow murkier, he said. The judge will have to come up with the formula.

If contractors are forbidden to use BlackBerries, it may make it impossible for them to meet all of their contractual obligations, some of which were agreed to with the assumption that the instant communication provided by the devices would be available, Pate said.

"It's hard to say how far the line will be drawn," Pate said. If the judge does not provide a generous definition of critical government employees, "it would cause performance issues in a company our size."

Endgame scenarios

In the unlikely event that RIM has to shut down U.S. mobile e-mail operations, contractors would not have to go cold turkey. Any injunctions would provide ample time — 30 to 60 days — to migrate to new systems, Pate said. Many RIM customers already have continuity of operations plans in place, he said.

Gartner predicts that the two most likely outcomes — 35 percent chance of either — are that RIM and NTP will settle or that the resolution will take another 12 months to 18 months. Gartner foresees a 20 percent chance that RIM will use workaround plans that don't infringe on NTP.

If RIM and NTP settle, it would likely mean no changes at all for contractors, Dulaney said. RIM could potentially charge more for the service to pay for the settlement but will likely eat those costs, he said.

"I'm not convinced that this is a total disaster for anyone," Dulaney said. "It's just an inconvenience."

Contractors should prepare

The possibility that Research in Motion BlackBerry users in the United States could lose their service may push federal agencies to look more closely at their mobile communications plans, said Chris Pate, director of mobile solutions at GTSI.

That is a good thing because many organizations may use BlackBerries as a technological crutch, Pate said. BlackBerries work so well and are so popular that some agencies have not created wireless communication plans that encourage effective information technology management or address workforce needs, he said. No organization should rely on one technology so that its absence could ruin a communications plan, he said.

No matter what happens, organizations that use BlackBerries should assign one person to spend a week developing contingency plans, said Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester Research.


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The planner should:

  • Identify and contact other vendors in case the companies need to move to another technology.
  • Develop a migration plan with a deployment timeline and prioritized list of who would receive new devices.
  • Identify purchasing locations, including existing vendors.
  • Determine which wireless applications, other than e-mail clients, employees want to access via mobile

    devices.

— Michael Arnone

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