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RIM rivals cash in as BlackBerry hearing looms

Customers look for alternatives in case patent battle shuts down mobile device's U.S. service.

Competitors are muscling into the wireless e-mail market dominated by Research In Motion as the maker of the BlackBerry e-mail device grapples with a patent battle that could shut down its U.S. service.

While few analysts and none of RIM's competitors believe there will be a BlackBerry blackout, the uncertainty has put the spotlight on alternatives to its e-mail system.

The timing is perfect, says Clyde Foster, chief operating officer of Intellisync, the wireless e-mail management firm bought by Nokia to boost the mobile giant's position in a market dominated by RIM.

A year ago, there were few alternatives to the BlackBerry, which packaged its device with its own e-mail system, but which now licenses its systems to mobile-phone makers too.

The rest of the market is not only catching up with RIM, but also offering more cost-effective choices on a wider range of phones, Foster said.

"That general change in the market has had a lot of people thinking about alternatives. On top of that, you have the scrutiny over the court case. For us, it's a benefit that it's happening now," said Foster, noting that inquiries about Intellisync's service have soared in the past two months.

"Even if RIM settles, and they don't have any injunction, those customers who weren't really looking for an alternative have now seen what the other software can do and what other devices can do."

RIM is back in a U.S. court on Feb. 24 for a hearing that could be the final legal step before District Judge James Spencer decides whether to impose an injunction that would halt RIM's U.S. services.

RIM, which lost a patent infringement suit to U.S. patent-holding company NTP, insists it has "workaround" software that would let BlackBerrys stay up and running, and avoid infringing NTP's patents.

But users of the addictive device, dubbed the "Crackberry," fear they could be out of luck.

Closely held Good Technology, RIM's biggest software and service competitor, says sales representatives are booked solid seeing customers looking for BlackBerry alternatives.

RIM still dominates market
"Our business in general has been growing, but the litigation has certainly helped," said Danny Shader, chief executive of Good Technology, whose wireless e-mail service is sold by wireless carrier Sprint and No. 1 U.S. mobile-phone service provider Cingular Wireless.

"It's changed the profile of some accounts that were previously absolutely committed to RIM, who now seem absolutely committed to replacing them, or at least not relying on them."

Shader says the RIM workaround is missing the point.

"It doesn't matter whether or not they have a workaround or whether or not they win or lose the litigation," he said. "Even if they win the litigation, they've lost. Because what they've done is by playing chicken with their customers' mission critical infrastructure, they've lost their trust."

RIM still dominates the market of corporate wireless e-mail users, with about 4.3 million BlackBerry subscribers in a market of around 6 million. Analysts and rivals expect that market to grow to about 125 million over the next few years.

"RIM barely scratches the surface. We don't need any of their customers," said Brian Bogosian, chief executive of Visto, a closely held wireless e-mail firm whose customers include Vodafone Group, the world's biggest mobile-phone service provider.

"They make a nice little device, and they have a good service. But our whole proposition is to make available a service on the device of your choice. That is a quantum leap ahead of what people have had as a choice up until now."

Bogosian also had a message for hardcore users still loyal to the BlackBerry: "Don't worry. This is all about money, so at the end of the day I believe they'll end up writing a check and resolving something which should have been resolved a year ago."

Story Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.