Legal Hassles Spread to Blackberry Competitors

By Michelle Kessler, USA TODAY

Mobile e-mail addicts, already nervous about a lawsuit that threatens to shut down BlackBerry service in the USA, have another reason to fret: BlackBerry's biggest rival was hit with a similar lawsuit Tuesday.

Visto, a maker of mobile e-mail systems for cellphone carriers, sued rival Good Technology in U.S. District Court. Visto claims Good has violated several patents dating to 1997. Good sells e-mail products for the Palm Treo, Hewlett-Packard iPaq and other handheld devices.

Customers shouldn't rush out to replace e-mail gadgets just because they're jittery, says Gartner tech analyst Ken Dulaney. Much of the industry is now involved in intertwined legal disputes. Most users should wait until the mess works itself out, he says.

"I don't know what's with this industry," he says. "The one viable product we can make is a lawsuit."

Visto, founded in 1996, has contracts with Cingular, Sprint and other carriers. Its user base numbers in the "hundreds of thousands," says co-founder Daniel Mendez.

Good won't release figures but is believed to be larger, Dulaney says. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM) has more than 4 million customers.

Visto's attack on Good comes as a similar lawsuit against RIM reaches a crucial stage. RIM has battled tiny intellectual property firm NTP over patents since 2001. On Feb. 24, a federal judge is expected to decide whether RIM must shut down its service in the USA until the case is resolved.

Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM says it has a software workaround to keep BlackBerrys running if it loses. But some customers remain nervous. Good has reported growing interest in its products as a result of RIM's legal woes.

Now Visto wants to benefit, too. By casting doubt on Good's legal status, it hopes to win customers from both Good and RIM.

"There are justifiable marketplace jitters about whether BlackBerry service will be shut down," Visto CEO Brian Bogosian said in a statement. "With Visto, all users, including BlackBerry users, have a safe-harbor alternative."

Good says it can't comment until it has time to review the claims.

Visto also has patent lawsuits against Microsoft, Seven Networks and Smartner Information Systems.

On Wednesday, Visto plans to make a declaration in the RIM case claiming that the industry can absorb RIM's customers if BlackBerry service is turned off.

RIM-rival NTP has an equity stake in Visto. It also has a stake in Good.

The lawsuits raise questions about whether U.S. courts make it too easy for companies to threaten to shut down rivals' businesses, says lawyer Jeffrey Berkowitz at Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner in Washington, D.C.

It also points out flaws in the often-overwhelmed patent office, Dulaney says.

Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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