If BlackBerry Blacks Out, Who Will Fill In?

What if BlackBerry goes black? Even for a little while? Analysts say that, at least in the near term, there is no comparable product to fill the void if the near-ubiquitous e-mail service is forced offline by a U.S. judge.

Research In Motion, the company that provides wireless e-mail service and the BlackBerry devices that carry it, faces a patent infringement lawsuit that threatens to shut down service to more than 3 million of the company's U.S. customers. Analysts estimate that BlackBerry dominates more than 55 percent of the U.S. wireless e-mail market.

Aside from the sheer number of customers, the service interruption would affect power players across a wide swath of government and corporate America, including a reported 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, almost every employee on Wall Street, and hundreds of thousands of federal and local government workers.

The device is so ubiquitous, that even the Department of Justice has chimed in on the case to complain that a service shutdown could be devastating to government workers.

With so much at stake for so many, maybe the most surprising reaction to RIM's legal troubles is its customers' preparation for the potential "BlackBerry-out." They've done virtually nothing.

Though competitors have worked to close the gap on BlackBerry's technology and market share, no big customers have announced plans to drop RIM's service.

"Even with all the bad news surrounding RIM, they have not been able to announce even one major customer that is switching services," said Peter Misek, a technology analyst with Canaccord Capital in Toronto.

Superior Product Breeds Loyalty

Most observers believe RIM will reach a settlement with NTP Inc., the Virgina-based firm that sued. But the prospect of living without BlackBerry technology, if only a hypothetical, has left some in the industry wondering whether its competitors are ready to step up.

The main reason for the consumers' faithfulness, Misek said, is the product itself.

"The problem that people don't realize is that there is no logical competitor to BlackBerry," Misek said. "There are others like the Treo, but that's just a device. With the BlackBerry, it has the BlackBerry service behind it, and that's really the gold standard in wireless hand-held technology."

That could change. The market is bracing for an onslaught of new products created to challenge BlackBerry. Communications heavyweights including Nokia, Samsung and Motorola are all expected to put new hand-held products on the market this year. Palm Inc.'s Treo device will soon carry a version of BlackBerry's "gold standard" technology.

Service competitors like Good Technologies and Intellisync hope that RIM's troubles will push customers to look at other alternatives.

"The closest person in scale is probably Microsoft, but by their own admission their technology is behind. And if I had to guess I'd say it's 18 to 24 months behind," Misek said.

Despite Misek's guess, at this year's 3GSM World Congress wireless conference in Barcelona, Spain, Microsoft announced plans to take on RIM with the introduction of hand-held devices and software for wireless operators.

BlackBerry's market position and strong product and service reputation have kept customers in the fold to this point. Analysts say most users prefer the BlackBerry device to competitor products currently on the market. The BlackBerry's broad keypad makes typing extensive e-mails far easier than it is on devices with more condensed setups, like the Treo, according to Gartner analyst Todd Kort.

"The Treo is probably better for people who aren't real heavy e-mailers," Kort said. "If you're using a handheld device to replace a notebook computer, the BlackBerry is still the best option."

Switching Providers Costs Money

BlackBerry's entrenchment in the businesses community is also an obstacle. Companies are wary of spending the time and money to replace their BlackBerry hardware and software that has been mostly successful.

"There are a lot of costs in switching to another service beyond paying for just the devices themselves," said Kort. "You have to buy and install new software, train people, train your IT guys to work with it. There's a lot to learn, and it costs money."

In the event of a court-ordered service halt, RIM claims to have a "work-around" solution that would allow customers to continue using the service. The work-around would likely be two to three times slower and use up more bandwidth than current BlackBerry service.

"That's when you could see some switching," Kort said.

But even with a slowdown, RIM's service would likely be faster than its competitors' -- as much as five times faster, according to Misek.

It's expected that most companies will continue to wait for the court ruling before deciding to change providers. Kort said he was unaware of a single Gartner client that had moved ahead with plans to switch.

"We've advised them to look at alternatives, but most companies are staying put," Kort said.

Despite that reluctance, Kort said RIM's legal predicament makes the market ripe for competition. The influx of new products is likely to come at a time when RIM is settling the patent suit for upward of $500 million. For RIM, it's hardly ideal to feel cash-strapped while major companies launch competing products.

"Things are going to continue as they have, but RIM's bank account might be considerably lighter," Kort said. "The BlackBerry will continue to be the market standard, but the market will eventually start to become more fragmented."