John Friend | In BlackBerry's battered shadow

Interview with John Friend, CTO of Good Technology Inc.

Good Technology CTO John Friend

Rick Steele

Like the folks who started BlackBerry's one-time nemesis, NTP Inc., John Friend is a patent holder. He's also CTO of Good Technology Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., which makes wireless messaging systems that compete with the BlackBerry platform. Was he pleased to see his competition bogged down in a patent dispute with NTP? Not exactly. (The two sides recently settled.)

Speaking to GCN days before the settlement, the former engineer at Netscape and America Online said Good could offer agencies things BlackBerry cannot, but he worries about the state of patent law (his own patents aren't for wireless messaging). He doesn't worry that NTP might come after his company next. Good signed an agreement with NTP to avoid that headache.

GCN: Why did Good sign a licensing agreement with NTP in March 2005? Were you in violation of their patents before you did so?

Friend: You're talking to someone who has studied those patents. In the case of NTP, their patents were extremely confusing to understand, and some people have even told me that they may have been written that way on purpose. So we made a business decision in that it was basically impossible to tell exactly what the patents did and didn't cover until you got into a court. And that wasn't where we wanted to end up, and it isn't where we wanted to be focusing our company's energy. We made the business decision to eliminate any of that speculation about intellectual property.

GCN: When you were at America Online, you were in charge of messaging servers, including wireless synchronization. Was AOL vulnerable to claims like NTP's? Is there anything about wireless messaging that isn't vulnerable to patent lawsuits?

Friend: The wireless space is unique because the promise of what you could do wirelessly existed long before it was commercially viable. And when that happens, you get folks who patent ideas before they're ever able to find a commercial or practical use for them. And that's what's happened in a few of the wireless cases, and certainly what happened with NTP. They filed some patents but never actually turned them into a commercial success.

GCN: And now a different company has sued you, correct? [Earlier this year, Visto Inc. of Redwood Shores, Calif., sued Good for infringing on its own mobile e-mail patents. Visto previously signed a licensing agreement with NTP protecting it from litigation while NTP acquired an equity stake in Visto.]

Friend: Yes, Visto has sued us. They have their own patents that are different than NTP's, as we have our own patents and many more in process. But this is brand new; Visto has sued a number of folks, including Microsoft. They haven't been a successful competitor of ours in the enterprise space, and you can draw your own conclusions about why they chose to sue us.

GCN: As a patent holder yourself, what do you personally think of the whole mess?

Friend: It's murky. You're sort of forced these days to file patents as defense. Personally, it pains me to see how much effort and money goes to attorneys that should be going to developing stuff for customers.

This is myself talking now, not Good. If a company invents something and finds a commercial use for it, they should be protected. ... Somewhere you have to draw a line if you invent something but never reduce it to commercial success.

In our business, the magic is making something that actually works for customers; the magic is not some technical invention. And that's everything from what IT cares about, to what the security group cares about, to what the carrier cares about, to what the device maker cares about, to what the end user cares about.

GCN: So Good has been in an interesting position because any RIM loss is potentially your gain, but you have issues with the NTP case.

Friend: You're right. We're sometimes conflicted. What we think a lot about, and what RIM has been feeling, is that we want customers to be confident in us. But if there are things to fight about in the patent courts in the future, that's important to us.

GCN: How is the Good platform different from a BlackBerry system?

Friend: We had our first beta in 2001, and in the early days, we were able to win customers because we had a better user experience. Nowadays, there's a broader array of differences. ... The No. 1 issue is device strategy. They build a vertically integrated, proprietary stack where they build everything, including the devices they're famous for. We built devices in the early days ... but today we don't build any and partner with all the standard device makers'Motorola, Nokia, HP. We're standard devices; BlackBerry is BlackBerry devices.

And we're 100-percent enterprise. We have no consumer offerings. When mobile deployment in an enterprise starts getting to 500 users, 1,000 users, all sorts of manageability issues come up. We discovered 'deployment blockers' where deployments got to a certain size, and IT would say, 'This is a little too much work.' So we've worked on what we call 'zero IT touch,' where IT can sit at a management console and without touching the devices, they can fully manage them.

GCN: Still, government loves BlackBerry. Have you made any inroads with agencies?

Friend: While government really has its own set of priorities, in other ways, they're just like our Fortune 50 enterprise customers, and they're attracted for many of the same reasons, whether it's a range of devices, or manageability, or security. [Good technology is FIPS certified.] Customers like the Coast Guard and the Homeland Security Department are security conscious, and while they've been attracted to our technology for other benefits'the Coast Guard initially got hooked on our user experience'they're going down a typical government path of advancing their security story.

And we have some reach beyond federal government. We have a large deployment for the government of Washington, D.C. We have thousands of users there including the mayor.

GCN: If an agency wanted to adopt a different wireless solution, what's involved in moving to a new platform?

Friend: It's actually fairly straightforward. We have a program right now explicitly for customers who have BlackBerry deployments. We've had more than 1,000 people sign up for that program. Several hundred set up trial Good servers. GoodLink is fairly easy to set up. It usually takes only a few hours to set up the back-end server, assuming you already have the hardware available and the internal network permissions to do so. Beyond that, it's just acquiring the devices and assigning them to users.

Some of our larger customers set up thousands a day, so the deployments can go pretty fast. Driven by our large customers who wanted to deploy fast, we have an array of deployment options. You can have everything you want on the device on a [Secure Digital] card, pop the SD card in, and it completely sets up the device in less than a minute. It can all also be done completely over the air. When you have remote offices, that's convenient.

When we started in this business, we thought enterprises would be all or nothing; they would choose BlackBerry or they would choose Good. But because it's not so difficult to set up the systems and because of the IT management, there are more and more customers that have both set up.

GCN: But it's definitely a parallel system, right? Another system, another server, another army of devices? There's nothing you can really migrate from a BlackBerry system?

Friend: Yes, and that's a consequence of RIM's being a closed system. They don't even allow applications like ours to run on their hardware. ... So you're right, it is a parallel system.

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