Users concerned about possible BlackBerry shutdown

BlackBerry users are panicked about the possibility that the popular wireless e-mail and voice service from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) could be shut down by an ongoing legal dispute -- and IT managers are scrambling to arrange backup systems, just in case.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused on Monday to intervene in the fight between RIM in Waterloo, Ontario, and NTP Inc. in Arlington, Va., closing down one of RIM's legal avenues in its battle with NTP. More than 4 million BlackBerry users and IT managers use or manage the technology, and those reached this week said in interviews that they're growing skittish about the future of RIM's service, which has been so reliable and addictive that many call their handhelds "CrackBerries."

"The lawyers in my firm are asking me, 'I'm not going to lose service, am I?' Man, people are wiggin' out," said Frank Gillman, director of technology at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory LLP, a Los Angeles law firm with 222 BlackBerry 7750 users who send e-mails with the BlackBerry's QWERTY keyboard and use the devices as wireless telephones.

RIM is "out of their minds if they don't settle this dispute," he said. "They have so much to lose if somebody shuts things down. Certainly RIM is not that stupid."

Gillman said BlackBerry is one of the "most widely used and widely beloved" technology brands in history and is trusted by a powerful group of well-paid lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers and executives. "If they take it away and people freak out, that would be a horrible risk to RIM's future," he said.

Gillman said his firm would be willing to incur added monthly costs to keep the service alive, should RIM agree to settle and pay licensing fees to NTP. "We'd pay more, within reason," he said. "If we had to pay US$5 more a month per device, on top of the current $50 per month, nobody would scream. And I bet if the monthly fee went up another $30, some users might pay it."