January 25, 2006

Salon on RIM’s IP Woes [8:23 am]

Entertaining, if sloppy, writeup: Will BlackBerry go out of season?

The fight cuts to the heart of the battle over intellectual property rights in an information economy. With rising competition at home and abroad, companies are desperately trying to stay current by offering new, innovative goods such as hand-helds, downloadable music, and satellite radio, all at sonic speeds of production. But the obsession with novelty is risky business when it is often unclear whether someone else may already own the idea.

[...] In the meantime, Karl Marx would be amused to watch RIM and NTP tear each other apart. Now that capital (like communication) is increasingly virtual, those who think they own the means of production may need to double-check their capitalist credentials. It turns out that it’s no longer enough to invent a product, build a factory and dominate the market as RIM did. A clever investor such as NTP, a company whose sole purpose is to hold patents, may turn out to be your boss.

The internecine ownership arguments are having some concrete trickle-down effects. While Mommy and Daddy fight over patent rights, the BlackBerry-toting spawn are terrified at the possibility of mobile e-mail deprivation. Ontario-based RIM has been so dominant in convincing American overachievers to buy BlackBerrys that the “South Park” creators should think about adding it to their song, “Blame Canada.” If BlackBerrys go dark, so will the mood of much of Wall Street. While this may delight the pen-and-ink crowd, it will likely (if temporarily) cost millions in lost time, reduced efficiency, and therapy bills.

It will also be a significant victory for intellectual property rights. BlackBerry’s classic market success will have been brought to heel by a small U.S. holding company that doesn’t produce a thing, speculating on products that may never exist. In other words, BlackBerry will have been defeated by an idea. Marx would have been proud.

Related, from the LATimes on schadefreude: BlackBerry outage? Oh, the horror [pdf]

There is a giddy schadenfreude that pervades the rest of the cellphone industry. “Wireless e-mail was ushered in by BlackBerry,” says Rip Gerber, chief marketing officer at Intellisync, which bills itself as the second-largest provider of wireless e-mail after BlackBerry. “It was a great first act, but the show goes on. The audience has matured and wants much, much more. Thank you BlackBerry, the market will take it from here.” Others who stand to benefit include Palm Inc., whose line of Treo smart phones is a popular alternative to BlackBerry, and new offerings from Nokia and Motorola.

Soap opera intrigue aside, legal experts say RIM simply has too much invested to let service stop; One way or another, they say, BlackBerrys will remain. (Internet gambling site Youwager.com is giving 2-1 odds that BlackBerry will be shut down in the next three months.) But there is something intriguing about the possibility of technology reversing its forward march. We have never held technology in our hands and loved it and hated it and watched it disappear. There should really be some sort of gizmo to help us weather these feelings we’re having. RIM? Anyone? Anyone?!

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