Microsoft, Intel split on BlackBerry spat

Companies that make up the Wintel juggernaut weigh in on the long-running NTP-RIM patent dispute.

Microsoft and Intel are taking opposing sides in a long-running patent dispute involving the BlackBerry handheld, a case that threatens U.S. sales of the wireless e-mail device.

Friend-of-the-court briefs filed last week by both companies and reviewed by CNET News.com reveal that Microsoft wants the courts to re-evaluate a 2002 district court decision that found BlackBerry maker Research In Motion infringed patents owned by Virginia-based patent holder NTP.

"Microsoft sees a benefit to dragging out the legal fight between RIM and NTP because it could limit the amount of BlackBerry devices sold."
--Todd Kort, Gartner analyst

RIM's BlackBerry devices and messaging service allow wireless always-on access to e-mail and corporate data on portable devices. NTP claims that RIM violates its patents covering the use of radio frequency wireless communications in e-mail systems.

Microsoft, which competes with RIM's software products, claims the NTP case establishes a rule where U.S. patents should not, for legal purposes, extend outside the country's borders. That contradicts court statements made during Microsoft's own legal tussles with Eolas and AT&T, the company said.

It creates "an incentive for American companies to locate certain aspects of their systems outside the United States, primarily to avoid infringement liability. Such an outcome would likely result in loss of jobs, skilled workers, capital, and information technology abroad," Microsoft argued.

Intel has taken the opposite end of the debate. Its 10-page opinion supports RIM's argument and faults NTP for not taking precautions to include language that covered international borders.

"Instead they chose to claim systems with many components and ran the risk that such systems would not be practiced entirely within this country," Intel said.

Intel and Microsoft both claim they have no vested interest in the outcome of the NTP-RIM case and only want to set the legal record straight.

But Gartner analyst Todd Kort suggests the team that makes up the Wintel juggernaut may only have their own best interests at heart.

"Intel has an interest in resolving RIM's case quickly because all of the next generation of . Microsoft sees a benefit to dragging out the legal fight between RIM and NTP because it could limit the amount of BlackBerry devices sold," Kort said.

RIM has been able to continue selling BlackBerry devices in the United States while the court reviews an appeal of the 2002 decision.

Third parties unlikely to sway case
Representatives for Intel and Microsoft were not immediately available to comment on NTP v. RIM. A RIM representative declined to talk about Intel or Microsoft's involvement in the case, citing confidentiality clauses in the dispute as well as a policy of not commenting on legal issues.

Earlier this week, NTP co-founder Donald Stout told CNET News.com that his company is not too concerned that Microsoft's court filing will reopen the case and leave NTP vulnerable for a retrial. Instead, Stout said Microsoft probably took its steps because it considers RIM's domination of the wireless e-mail space a threat to its own Windows Mobile software plans.

"They're very concerned of what will happen if RIM continues to gain market share," Stout said.

While cases are sometimes influenced by amicus briefs, or third-party opinions, Kort noted that neither Intel nor Microsoft's views should have a devastating impact on the outcome of the court's decision.

"We are telling clients that we don't think the courts will impose an injunction at this time," Kort said. "The U.S. Patent Office is taking care of that. They have been throwing out NTP patents right and left."

NTP filed its latest legal papers on Wednesday in response to RIM's Aug. 16 filing asking for a retrial and rehearing of the 2002 decision. RIM has two weeks to file its final response.

Judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington recently withdrew the initial 59-page opinion and issued a new 74-page opinion clarifying the definition of NTP's "method" patents.

NTP and RIM will now wait for the appeals court to decide whether to grant a rehearing. If it does, both parties will likely be asked to file additional briefs on the issues. However things turn out at the appeals court (whether or not rehearing is granted), either NTP or RIM will have the opportunity to ask the Supreme Court to review the Federal Circuit's decision.

The elongated legal process has proven costly for RIM. The company recently reported spending millions of dollars in legal fees, not to mention lost revenue from shareholders turning from a perceived patent problem.

A tentative $450 million licensing settlement that RIM owes NTP also hinges on the court's decision.

Both RIM and NTP have publicly stated there is no guarantee of a positive outcome and that the legal disputes could extend for years.

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