BlackBerry Limited, formerly known as Research In Motion, is a telecommunications company headquartered in Waterloo in the Canadian province of Ontario. Known for its flagship product, the BlackBerry, RIM has severely reduced its market presence in recent days and the main shareholder has even announced that the company will go private soon, removing its stock from public exchanges. Although the company still services many millions of electronic device owners, its future seems to be cloudy at best.
In IPWatchdog’s Companies We Follow series, we typically take a look at companies on the forefront of technological development. However, today we want to take a look at Research In Motion to profile a former giant in the industry before it slinks off further into obscurity. We discuss possible roads down which RIM may travel in order to make itself profitable in the next few years. We’re also featuring the companies patent applications and issued patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to get an idea of the portfolio it will still be able to protect.
BlackBerry has a lot of patent applications still going through the USPTO system, as far as we can tell all of them dealing with mobile devices or communications systems in one way or another. The company is also still amassing a portfolio of US patents. Recent patents that are intriguing in the technological sector include a few patents that improve the ability of mobile device users with limited keyboards to input text commands. Another issued patent creates a navigational tool for a mobile device that plays an audible feedback when operated. Still another patent of recent vintage displays a notification light when an event is upcoming.
This all begs the question, however, about what the future holds in store for BlackBerry. Will they regroup under private ownership? Will they morph into a licensing juggernaut? Might they give up being a manufacturing company altogether and turn their considerable portfolio on the industry? Will the patent portfolio be auctioned off to the highest bidder?
Time will tell what will become of BlackBerry, but when the question “What is the future of BlackBerry?” was entered into the virtual Magic 8 Ball the response was: “Don’t count on it.” Hardly scientific, only mildly amusing, but as far as predictions it is certainly within the envelope of possibilities — perhaps even the most likely of possibilities. But rather than rely on a virtual Magic 8 Ball allow us to rely on some good old fashion speculation and conjecture, followed by discussion of what our snapshot review of the BlackBerry portfolio tells us.
Research In Motion Goes Private
The decline of Research In Motion as a major player in the mobile communications market could be traced to the late 2000s, when the iPhone and Android frenzies took off in earnest. RIM’s flagship product, the BlackBerry, still had a decent footing as a consumer electronic device, earning many devoted followers because of its physical keyboard and secure e-mail client. The company’s meteoric rise had continued up until this year, when revenues dropped sharply and the company’s main shareholder, Canadian insurance company Fairfax Financial Holdings, decided to take the company private in a $4.7 billion deal.
The announcement of a deal to take the company private comes on the heels of some difficult months for RIM, during which the company reported a $1 billion loss on the previous financial quarter. It also noted publicly that 4,500 employees of the company will be laid off in the coming months. Still, there are estimated to be about 50 million devoted BlackBerry users worldwide, but whether the company can stop hemorrhaging active users is unknown.
The poor sales performance of the BlackBerry Z10, the company’s first attempt at a touchscreen device, was a major blow to the corporation’s fortunes. Without substantial revenues from this device, the company was forced to rely too heavily on profits from sales of devices running its BlackBerry 7 operating system. Fairfax Financial’s purchase of the company and its decision to take it private will allow BlackBerry to operate without so much public scrutiny.
What happens next to this once venerable technology developer is a subject for debate. Although the company will continue to service its millions of global users, it seems likely that we won’t see any major new BlackBerry products hit the market in the next few years. It’s possible that the company could devote more resources to licensing the technology it’s already developed, drawing revenues off of the company’s patent portfolio while reducing operating capital spent on manufacturing devices. Depending on Fairfax Financial’s interests, BlackBerry could even cease all operations and earn revenue as a non-practicing entity, which the public knows by the pejorative and not terribly accurate term “patent troll.” Or perhaps the new owners will seek to sell some or all of the company’s considerable patent portfolio. While the valuation of the BlackBerry portfolio may otherwise be quite high, the market for such sales seems soft at the moment, although the smartphone patent wars could drive tremendous interest by industry giants sitting on huge sums of cash.
None of the potential paths for BlackBerry are nearly as interesting as the potential the company might turn its patents on the industry and declare war. It would be an extraordinary turn of events if BlackBerry were to go down that path in earnest, becoming either a true non-practicing entity or a practicing entity that outsources patent enforcement to a non-practicing “partner” entity. As many readers may remember it was RIM’s settlement with another famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint) patent troll, NTP, Inc., which ended in a 2006 settlement costing the BlackBerry creator more than $600 million. While the term “patent troll” was coined in reference to famed patent litigator Ray Niro, it was the NTP fight with RIM that really first escalated the issue in the eyes of the public. Threatened with an injunction RIM paid the $600 million, BlackBerry services remained up and running and the patent world had a villain that Silicon Valley could use as a boogeyman. Efforts for patent reform, which have resulted in significant erosions in the rights held by patent owners, started in earnest. Indeed, it would be quite the irony if BlackBerry were to go down that road.
Regardless of the path that BlackBerry will follow the company’s patent portfolio should be the primary asset that enables whatever future lies ahead.
Recent Patent Applications of Note
Even as Research In Motion transitions into whatever the next chapter will be, the company still has an outstanding portfolio of patent applications that will almost certainly see more patent applications published weekly by the USPTO for months to come. Overwhelmingly, this application portfolio deals with improvements to computing systems or user interfaces for mobile devices. Many of these technologies describe innovations that could seemingly be used with smartphones from other manufacturers, possibly setting up BlackBerry as a communications and operating system licenser.
A few of these patent applications continue to build upon the company’s reputation as a developer of highly secure communications systems for business professionals. For example, U.S. Patent Application No. 20130254528, filed under the title Secure Message Handling on a Mobile Device, maintains efficiency in power use for sending and forwarding e-mails while improving digital security. Typically, an e-mail message forwarded from a mobile device don’t include an encrypted signature when directing the e-mail to a messaging server, but this innovation would include the encryption without increasing bandwidth use. Another patent application, U.S. Patent Application No. 20130242037, entitled Method and Systems for Mobile Telepresence, would protect a system of enabling mobile devices to communicate with business telepresence platforms that typically don’t support mobile clients.
Other patent applications have been filed to protect new methods of interacting with mobile devices through the user interface, including voice and graphic interface interactions. One example is U.S. Patent Application No. 20130246920, filed under the title of Method of Enabling Voice Input for a Visually Based Interface, improves voice recognition and operational software that allows users to complete more complex app procedures through voice input, such as making restaurant reservations. This system could even be used to access apps that don’t have their own voice recognition software. Design improvements discussed in U.S. Patent Application No. 20130249939, which is titled Methods and Devices for Providing a Wallpaper Viewfinder, make it easier for a user to upload a personal photo as wallpaper so that graphic icons interfere less with the image’s main subject. Finally, U.S. Patent Application No. 20130246329, entitled In-Context Word Prediction and Word Correction, discusses a system of auto-correcting text input for messaging services that doesn’t require a user to look away from the keyboard to select the word they meant to type in case of a misspelling.
Recent Issued Patents of Note
The patent portfolio that BlackBerry has already amassed promises to be the corporation’s greatest asset heading towards these uncertain times. As one would expect, a great deal of the recent patents issued by the USPTO pertain to legal protections for portable electronic device systems. These issued patents discuss improvements mostly for electronic devices with a physical keyboard, one of the hallmarks of the BlackBerry device.
Some of these issued patents are specifically written to protect improvements to smartphone devices with limited keyboards, where one key may need to represent multiple characters. For example, one of these, U.S. Patent No. 8542187, entitled Handheld Electronic Device with Text Disambiguation, protects a system of improving text entry on a reduced QWERTY or DVORAK keyboard. This system would provide a disambiguation of potential words that a user entered on a keyboard, from which the user could select the proper term. U.S. Patent No. 8527887, issued under the name Device and Method for Improving Efficiency of Entering a Password Using a Key-Limited Keyboard, protects a system that helps users of devices with limited keyboards enter a security password for mobile services that reduce the amount of keystrokes that the user must enter.
BlackBerry is still active in claiming patent rights for devices with full keyboards as well. As seen in U.S. Patent No. 8537108, which is titled Navigation Tool with Audible Feedback on a Handheld Communication Device Having a Full Alphabetic Keyboard, the company has developed a better system for providing user feedback of device navigation through a keyboard input. A navigation tool found on the keyboard would provide an audible sound when operated by a user to navigate between icons and other selectable items.
Other mobile device improvements have been protected through some other intriguing patents issued by the USPTO. One, U.S. Patent No. 8533311, issued under the title System and Method for Remotely Controlling Mobile Communication Devices, protects a system of streamlining separate digital communications services meant to push notifications of e-mail and other important items directly to a user’s device. Finally, U.S. Patent No. 8532721, entitled Portable Electronic Device Having Sliding Display Providing Event Notification, protects a system of illuminating a device screen’s pixels in a certain fashion when the device receives an event notification.