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If the true test of a relationship is how it fares in bad times, the bond between lawyers and their BlackBerrys is sturdier than most marriages. That’s a sad comment on the state of most couples, but good news for Research in Motion Limited (RIM). The Waterloo, Ontario � based company makes the handheld wireless device that delivers e-mail 24/7 to just about any location on earth. In fact, it’s probably the only bit of good news for RIM lately, which has been embroiled in a patent infringement suit that threatens to shut down BlackBerry service in the United States. Most BlackBerry users (and their technology managers) are dealing with the potential shutdown like cuckolded husbands: They’re in complete denial, betting that RIM’s legal woes will go away. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. The BlackBerry has become an essential business tool for 3 million users in the U.S. alone. Surely there will be some settlement that keeps the service running, the thinking goes, particularly since the company that’s suing RIM � the tiny Virginia-based NTP, Inc. � offers no rival service; it only owns patents. (RIM dodged a bullet in February when the judge in NTP’s suit declined � at least for now � to issue an injunction.) “One way or another RIM will find a way to keep service on,” says David Schwartz, senior vice president and general counsel at Toys ‘R’ Us, Inc., in Wayne, New Jersey. He isn’t alone in thinking things will work out. Lawyers at other large companies, including Hewlett-Packard Company, Pitney Bowes Inc., and Sonic Automotive, Inc., have no contingency plan in place. “We believe that an injunction shutting down the BlackBerry service is unlikely,” says Steve Coss, senior vice president and general counsel at Sonic Automotive, where 80 key employees of the company use BlackBerrys. But there are alternatives to the BlackBerry out there that duplicate the device’s experience � sort of. And that’s the problem: Like Apple’s iPod, the BlackBerry is a simple-to-use device that no rival has quite been able to match. The product that comes closest is Palm, Inc.’s Treo, a “smart” personal digital assistant that combines a phone with mobile e-mail. It already figures in some legal department contingency plans, and if an injunction should be issued, will undoubtedly figure in many more. At Sonic Automotive, for example, a few executives have experimented with the Treo, according to Coss. For its part, RIM hasn’t exactly encouraged customers to develop a backup plan; it recently announced that it developed a software workaround to its patent problem � a workaround that, at press time, it had yet to release. All of this begs the question: Why doesn’t everyone just move to the Treo? Many users say that BlackBerry and Treo are the Coke and Pepsi of wireless e-mail, but they’re really more like Coke and Starbucks. The BlackBerry was built specifically for mobile e-mail, while the Treo was designed primarily as a phone � a feature-laden phone, with a calendar, contact list, memos, and the ability to run all kinds of third-party applications. Treo-based e-mail has never been quite as elegant, or quite as fast, as BlackBerry e-mail. The most popular Treo model, the Treo 650, uses the Palm operating system, while most corporate IT departments use software by Microsoft Corporation, meaning that the two don’t integrate so easily. Out of the box, a Treo doesn’t retrieve e-mail in real time � la BlackBerry; instead, it simply checks e-mail at a time interval users set, whether that’s every few minutes, or every few hours. However, one big BlackBerry user is ready to move to the Treo if it has to. NTP’s proposed injunction exempts government employees and first responders from any BlackBerry shutdown. Raytheon Company, the defense contractor, thinks its work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will enable many of its employees � including its 70 or so BlackBerry-toting attorneys � to get a pass. “It’s a can’t-do- without tool,” says Woods Abbott, Raytheon’s senior manager of legal operations. “We totally rely on it for communications in our fast-paced environment and we cannot be down.” But so far, there’s no guarantee that an injunction will exempt Raytheon � and no one is quite sure how an exemption can be carried out, shutting BlackBerry down for some while keeping it up for others. The uncertainty has led Raytheon to hedge its bets. In January it bought boxes of Treos. Not everyone will be issued one, though; only about 12 senior attorneys are slated to get a Treo. While a Treo may not start out as elegant as a BlackBerry, it can be molded into a fairly decent BlackBerry alternative. Software add-ons boost the Treo to near parity with the BlackBerry, though they also make more work for the IT staff (it’s one more piece of software they have to manage). Third-party applications like GoodLink, from Good Technology, Inc., and Visto Mobile, from Visto Corp., integrate Microsoft-based e-mail servers (and Lotus Notes servers) with Treos and other non-BlackBerry handhelds, and can push e-mail out to these devices in real time. Just in case, Entergy Services, Inc., in The Woodlands, Texas, is currently testing GoodLink. Should there be a BlackBerry blackout, Goodlink-powered Treos will take over. “The results from the pilot are positive thus far,” says Robert Hess III, an associate general counsel at Entergy. “We could ramp up to accommodate many of Entergy’s users if BlackBerry services are shut down.” Entergy also plans to look at messaging solutions from Microsoft � a player that has, up until now, been conspicuously absent from the mobile e-mail scene. The new Treo 700w, released in January, jettisons the Palm OS in favor of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. In theory, this should enable users to integrate their e-mail servers with their handheld devices without going through third-party channels, making the Treo a more formidable BlackBerry alternative. But the Treo isn’t quite there yet. Only later this year will Palm offer Microsoft’s Messaging and Security Feature Pack as a free upgrade, enabling push e-mail with Exchange servers. And the Treo 700w � currently available only from Verizon Wireless Inc. (expect to see versions in the coming months from Sprint and other wireless carriers) � has been getting mixed reviews. Its display is the same physical size as that of the Treo 650, but features a reduced resolution; the device is costly, too, at about $600 if purchased without a wireless plan, and $399 if purchased with one. Either way, that’s about $100 more than the Treo 650. While all the legal jockeying was taking place, RIM was noticeably quiet on the what-if scenario, offering little reassurance other than to say that NTP’s patents were bad. But in early February, RIM announced that it had developed a software workaround that wouldn’t infringe NTP’s patents. While details were sketchy, the workaround involves the way RIM queues messages for delivery. Currently, when RIM’s Network Operations Center (NOC) determines that a specific BlackBerry is outside a wireless coverage area, it makes a note to resend the message later. With the workaround, the NOC will, instead, notify the BlackBerry server back at the user’s company that it could not deliver the message and leave it to the server to queue and resend the message. The user should get the message with no inkling of what’s changed behind the scenes, other than a slight delivery lag. The bigger issue, perhaps, is that the workaround will require software upgrades to both BlackBerry handhelds and servers, and RIM has yet to make these available (check blackberry.com/ select/mme). NTP is proposing a 30-day transition between the granting of any injunction and its implementation, but that may not be enough time for IT managers to vet the upgrades. In theory, RIM’s workaround will keep you pressing BlackBerry keys. In practice, you may be pressing your luck. Alan Cohen is a New York � based freelance writer who frequently reports on technology.

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