RIM's high stakes game of chicken

It’s the corporate version of a game of chicken, but rather than the ego of a five year old on the school yard being at stake, it is the fate of an estimated 3 million Blackberry users in the United States.

The clock is fast ticking down to February 24th when a US judge will rule on the dispute between patent holding company NTP and Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company behind the phenomenally successful Blackberry handhelds. The judge could order the shut down of the entire Blackberry network in the US.

RIM says it has prepared for this eventuality and has released a few more details on a software workaround that it says will circumnavigate NTP’s patent objections. Specifics are, however, thin on the ground, other than users will be required to download software to their Blackberry’s and IT managers will be required to update the software on their Blackberry servers.

Whilst the workaround, if implemented, might seem to solve RIM’s problems, in reality, the legal uncertainty would likely continue, with NTP sure to send its legal attack dogs sniffing for further possible patent breaches.

Business hates uncertainty and no doubt there are quite a few companies out there already hunting for possible alternatives. Whilst RIM has the market pretty much sewn up for now, a very dark cloud is drifting over the US/Canadian border from Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters.

It's no coincidence that Bill’s mob have taken the opportunity to announce their own push email capability for mobile phones, complete with support from carriers such as Orange, Cingular, Sprint and Vodafone who are offering free upgrades to customers.

What the final outcome of the patent case will be is anybody’s guess, but it seems that a settlement is more and more in RIM's interest. RIM's co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, has hinted a as much, saying the company is prepared to “generously compensate NTP”, with analysts bandying around figures of up to $1 billion.

That’s good money for NTP, for doing the proverbial Sweet Fanny Adams.