On Tuesday Research in Motion was granted a patent for a "hand-held email device", and waited just 24 hours before clobbering rival Handspring Inc. with a writ.
Have a close look at the patent [6,452,588, here], because it's sure to cast a very long shadow over the handheld wireless and cellular businesses in the coming months.
(Coyly, RIM didn't mention this in its press release yesterday, and the first wire reports this morning haven't twigged that this is a new grant).
The 45-page filing, submitted last July, is for a "Hand-held e-mail device with a keyboard optimized for use with the thumbs ... In order to operate within the limited space available on a hand-held electronic device, the present invention optimizes the placement and shape of the keys, preferably using keys that are oval or oblong in shape, and that are placed at angles designed to facilitate thumb-typing. The angles at which keys on either side of the keyboard are placed is [sic] complimentary [sic]."
So the patent already fails the Microsoft Word grammar checker. But will it succeed in intimidating RIM's rivals?
RIM isn't the first PDA company to protect its keyboard design. Psion filed two patents for its Series 5 device, but these were mechanical issues. Psion had produced an ultra thin, slide-out keyboard and the competitive threat at the time (1997) appeared to come from the first generation of keyboard-based, clamshell Windows CE 1.0 devices. (Stop sniggering at the back, please). It patented the hinge and the key contact: and both it could be argued, were genuine innovations.
By contrast the RIM patent goes into great detail about the geometry of the keyboard: for example. And for good measure, and this will cause ructions on its own, we predict, RIM's grant also patents a thumb wheel for controlling menus: which is a common feature on today's PDAs and some phones, too.
6,452,588 cites over thirty previous patent filings. Hewlett Packard, which pioneered the calculator, and Ericsson, which has sold an identical add-on phone keyboard for several years now, will be particularly interested in this, we suggest.
RIM followed-up today by filing its fourth lawsuit in a California court against Good Technology, Inc., which produces a BlackBerry-clone, and this is pretty nasty too.
And it accuses Good Technology which aped both the RIM business model as well as the client device, of "misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract, tortious interference with contracts and prospective economic relations, unfair competition, unjust enrichment, breach of implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, and civil conspiracy."
Patents were originally designed to protect small inventors, but as with copyright law, the system has been abused to create private monopolies. Now RIM seems to be determined to compete not with its engineering or marketing skills, but with its lawyers. ®