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Reassurance...or a bad omen?

You've probably heard something about BlackBerry maker RIM's patent dispute in the US courts. Maybe it's even frightened you a little. Some coverage has leaned towards the "your BlackBerry is going to crash and take the business with it" variety. Luckily, this appears to be hyperbole, as we explain in the February Real Finance (due to hit your desks a week from today). The case shouldn't matter a jot to BlackBerry's service in the UK. However, should the courts serve an injunction against RIM, it will mean the end of writing emails while walking down Frisco's Telegraph Avenue (which is just as well - you're liable to get hit by a trolley).

But how the landscape changes... today we got an alert that they've updated and tested workaround software "as a contingency to allow RIM partners and customers to continue to use the BlackBerry service should the court implement an injunction in the current litigation". Now which of these alarm bells ring for you?

Bell A: They obviously think they're going to lose.

Bell B: They're intending to fight this all the way – they'll risk losing because they refuse to admit defeat and settle.

Bell C: They are trying to reassure their customers.

Tough call, and I'm no mind reader. A is out because RIM can avoid an injunction – and thus a BlackBerry blackout – by settling. The question is, how likely are they to push their luck? Gartner analyst Todd Kort puts the risk of an injunction at 10 per cent. "There's still too much business sense in them settling," Gartner says.

So while they might not be prepared to *lose* per se, I bet that in a game of one-upmanship they'd like their legal opponents to think just that. And they must think the move reassures customers -- or they wouldn't have sent the press release so freely. Me? I'm looking more closely at Vodafone Business Email...

More news on this front, apparently, on February 24. I doubt we'll even have to wait that long.

Brown's OFR mistake

What sort of business would get incensed about the cutting of red tape? A lot of them, Gordon Brown will probably find. Because dropping the requirement for companies to write operating and financial reviews (OFRs) isn't the win-win for British business that Brown claimed in his speech to the CBI today.

What's the big deal? Well, the reporting standard was going to take effect on April 1, 2006 – but it would have applied to financial years starting on or after April 1, 2005. That means a lot of companies have already spent tons of time and money to collect and analyse the relevant data. It's a bit like making cinemas free, effective 2006, and expecting people who saw the first run of E.T. to thank you.

Second, there's a reason certain things are made mandatory: because otherwise they wouldn't get done. Or, those who chose to “do the right thing” would get penalised. We don't ask companies to pay the minimum wage; we tell them to. Similarly, if all companies decided to do OFRs out of the goodness of their hearts, that would be swell. But it ain’t gonna happen. Those that do will provide shareholders with great information about health and safety records, environmental compliance, staff churn... prompting the shareholders to invest elsewhere. OK, I exaggerate, because we hope shareholders aren't so myopic as to think “what I can't see won't hurt me”. But would you bet on that? And will boards?

Fear Factor

I took an Introduction to Psychology class my last year in high school. (I know, us Americans, our educational system is nuts.) I remember being particularly captivated reading about those experiments that involved an element of subterfuge. For instance, you got a bunch of people together and asked them to judge lines of varying length – ostensibly to study visual perception, but really to gauge how likely they were to conform to the group opinion.

So I was intrigued to see the same technique applied to market research. The online security company RSA recently did just that, sending a team of clipboard-wielding researchers into New York’s Central Park. Wearing “I Love NY” t-shirts, the troupe asked passers-by questions about tourism while giving off warm, fuzzy vibes so as to gain the subjects’ trust. What they found was that people are all too willing to disclose information that could give away their passwords or help someone steal their identity. Seven out of ten gave away their mothers’ maiden names. Nine out of ten told researchers both their date and place of birth. Sports teams are another no-no, apparently – further proof that 8eckh4am really is a naff password.

What concerns me about this is not the undercover work per se – although the New York tourism board might fear damage to its reputation – but the underlying message in RSA’s publicising this kind of study. Namely: be afraid. Be petrified. Identity fraud lurks like a hairy green monster around every corner. It’s a message the media’s been banging on about for months, but now it really seems to be reaching fever pitch. “Chip and pin!” “Do you need a shredder?” “Who’s looking over our shoulder?” “Chip and pin, CHIP AND PIN!” The adverts seem to get shriller each time. Undoubtedly identity fraud is a problem, but I have to ask whether this hysteria is doing us any good – or even whether it’s the best way to push products. One can’t help being reminded of The Government (the combined entity of Bush Inc and Blair Plc) and its own desperate attempts at buying loyalty through fear. Now, an invasion of the Cayman Islands? That I might support…

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