Research in Motion Ltd., the Canadian company that makes the popular BlackBerry e-mail device, will keep on rolling no matter what happens in its patent dispute with NTP Inc., RIM chairman Jim Balsillie says.
The Waterloo, Ont.,-based company that Balsillie heads, along with co-chief executive Mike Lazaridis, has been dogged by the high-profile legal battle with NTP, which says the BlackBerry violates its patents.
But encouraged by recent interim rulings in RIM’s favour at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the PTO’s commitment to fast-track process and finish its final report early in the new year, Balsillie was sounding a confident note at year’s end.
It doesn’t hurt that RIM’s most recent quarterly report shows profits up 32.8 per cent and revenues up 53.2 per cent in the three months ended Nov. 26, compared with the year-earlier period.
Balsillie says that the media spotlight on its NTP litigation hasn’t affected BlackBerry sales significantly, although the company has twice reduced its estimates for subscriber additions in its current quarter.
“Most people couldn’t give two hoots about it,” Balsillie says in a phone interview. “Certainly, in Canada our sales are soaring. It’s been no factor here.”
While RIM is a bona fide Canadian success story – establishing itself as the acknowledged global market leader among wireless e-mail devices – it has been haunted by the grim possibility that everything could come to a grinding halt.
The battle with NTP has been working its way through both the U.S. patent office and the U.S. court system along different paths that appear poised to converge early in 2006.
District court judge James Spencer, who presided over the jury trial that found in late 2002 that RIM had violated several of NTP’s patents, has given all concerned parties until February 2006 to file their final briefs with him.
That’s about two months later than many analysts had expected, after Spencer said on Nov. 30 that he would rule quickly on NTP’s request for an injunction to block sales of the BlackBerry in the United States.
And given the patent office’s commitment to speed up its final report, it’s at least theoretically possible the judge will take its findings into account before he decides whether to order RIM to stop using NTP’s patented technology.
Balsillie says he’s not willing to conjecture whether the NTP dispute will be resolved in 2006 – RIM thought it had a deal in early 2005 to license NTP’s patents for $450 million US but that quickly fell apart – but he says it doesn’t really matter.
“We carry on anyway,” he says. “One way or another, our services are staying running. One way or another, we’re going to keep selling and growing.”
RIM has talked for months about a “workaround” that, it says, will keep alive the BlackBerry’s real-time wireless e-mail service – used extensively by political, fire, police, military, business and media personnel – in the event of an injunction.
Balsillie told analysts after the company released its third-quarter results on Wednesday that RIM will soon begin revealing how the workaround solution works.
He described it in a conference call as a simple solution but one that can be adapted to conform with Spencer’s eventual ruling.
“We haven’t gone into the details of it,” Balsillie said in a later interview. “But, the fundamental of it is, we’d build it into our shipments.”
Despite Balsillie’s assertion that RIM’s customers aren’t concerned about the potential for a BlackBerry service disruption, there is evidence that some potential buyers have been holding off on their decisions – slowing RIM’s subscriber growth.
Merrill Lynch analyst Vivek Arya wrote in a research note after the quarterly report that the 645,000 subscribers added to the BlackBerry service in RIM’s fiscal third quarter was five to nine per cent lower than initial estimates issued in June.
In addition, Arya noted that RIM’s sales of server software – used to route e-mail messages through the system – were down for the third quarter in a row.
Chief information officers may have simply been waiting for a new version of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server software to come out, Arya wrote, but added the NTP patent dispute could also be weighing on the minds of CIOs.
“We suspect this segment weakness could also be due to litigation issues that are making new CIOs adopt non-RIM solutions, such as those from Good or Seven, while existing CIOs remain anxious to hear about RIM’s proposed workaround solution.”
RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky wrote in his research report that he still expects the two warring sides will reach a settlement, adding that RIM could afford to pay up to $1 billion US.
“We speculate the workaround is legitimate enough to pressure on NTP to settle, as their (long-term) leverage diminishes with each (patent office) preliminary decision overturning NTP’s claims. However, implementing the workaround, which we speculate requires IT installation/testing and may alter the user experience, also pressures RIM to settle, to avoid risks of customer backlash,” Abramsky wrote.
He added that investors would react favourably to a settlement but if RIM goes ahead with a workaround, “business and investor momentum for RIM could further stall, as customers and investors wait to see if the workaround is allowed.”
For his part, Balsillie says he can’t think of “any reasonable scenario” that will stop Research In Motion’s upward momentum – with or without an NTP settlement and regardless of new competitive products from Microsoft, Nokia and Palm.
“I can’t see us coming off double-digit growth for years,” he said. “I think it’s going to carry on for a long time. We so much runway of opportunity ahead of us.”
From a technology point of view, Balsillie says, the big thing to look for in 2006 is the emergence of high-performance EVDO and EDGE wireless networks as well as tools to perform “mass customization” of software for devices like the BlackBerry.
The impact, he says, will be two-fold: wireless devices will become both more mainstream (because of faster web browsing) and more user-specific (because of easier software customization).
“Even just a small shift in those areas, will have dramatic commercial benefits to the carriers and the market,” Balsillie predicts. “Those are the things that are the big shifts.”