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More on the BlackBerry Saga

For many, it was easy to take the side of Research in Motion in its patent dispute with NTP over wireless messaging technology in the former's BlackBerry handheld platform. In part, we figure that's because we never got to hear from the patent holder, Tom Campana, when things really started to heat up around Washington. Campana, a bonafide inventor and engineer (he had about 50 patents to his name), died of cancer in June 2004. This was after RIM was found to have infringed on NTP's patents and just as RIM had launched its appeal.

But sitting across a conference table from Daniel Mendez, co-founder of Visto Corp., which now has its own patent lawsuit against RIM, it's hard to dismiss his company's claims as those of a frustrated, wireless messaging also-ran.

A quick bit of level-setting first: Both NTP and Visto are patent lawsuit winners. Before RIM settled with NTP for more than $600 million, the judgment was that RIM had, indeed, infringed on the patents in question. And last month, Visto won a judgment against a company called Seven Networks for violating its patents. Bolstered by the win, Visto turned on RIM, as it has Microsoft and Good Technology.

When Mendez describes the early years, working on the technology in a garage, neglecting his family (and this doesn't make him or any other inventor unique), we're better able to understand why anyone who's convinced he or she came up with something special would want to ensure other companies respect and honor that innovation.

When Mendez describes the due diligence he and Visto have gone through as they picked their way through the legal/patent system--digging up documents, having them analyzed--we realize lawsuits like this are anything but frivolous. They are time and money pits. Mendez says he's sought as much feedback from the system itself, including the Patent and Trademark Office, as possible before proceeding because frankly, the startup company can't afford to be frivolous. ("If we have invalid patents, we want to know ahead of time.")

Could he be spinning us? Yes. But we doubt it. Wireless messaging is still fairly nascent, yet it's already proven itself invaluable. Who came up with what and when is not easy to figure out. When asked what he thought of NTP's patents (which are very different from Visto's), Mendez says what others have told us: It's sort of hard to understand what's there.

Ultimately, despite its early victory and what Mendez characterizes as PTO's affirmation of its patents, Visto probably faces an uphill battle against RIM in the court of popular opinion.

For one thing, Visto doesn't do a lot of U.S. business. Its technology is more prominent in Europe and Asia. For another thing, enterprises don't actually buy from Visto. Wireless carriers such as Vodafone and Sprint Nextel resell its messaging platform. Moreover, carriers rebrand the Visto technology, and because there's no Visto client software (it integrates with existing handheld software), organizations actually using it might not know they are.

NTP suffered a perception problem because its patents didn't lead to marketable products. Visto has products, but many won't know they exist.

Regardless, as lawsuits wend their way through the system, it's important that agencies not necessarily take sides, but that they continue to examine wireless technology for its potential benefits--favorite platform aside. We're still at the beginning here.

Posted by Brad Grimes

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Jun 08, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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