January 24, 2006

Life Without a Blackberry? Users Shudder to Think

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK -- Life without a "Blackberry?" Hard-core users of the wireless portable e-mail devices are shuddering to think about a possible future without the gadgets they love, hate and aren't sure they can live without.

The chance of a Blackberry-less future loomed more vividly this week when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a major patent infringement ruling against maker Research In Motion Ltd.

Now, a federal judge could issue an injunction to block RIM's U.S. business. Many observers, however, suspect RIM may develop alternative technology or perhaps pay what some say could be as much as a billion dollars to settle with patent-holding company NTP Inc.

"I'm addicted. They should pay the billion dollars and get it over with," Blackberry user and insurance company executive Jim Long said outside his Manhattan office on Monday.

So pervasive is the Blackberry culture, with some 3.65 million customers, that the device is nicknamed the "Crackberry" for its addictive allure. And it's blamed for woes ranging from rudeness to injury to obsession.

"It consumes me. I shouldn't be looking at it on weekends, but I do," said Wall Street trader Ryan McDonald. "My wife tells me to put it down all the time."

Of course, like many addicts, plenty of Blackberry fanatics are in denial. "I'm not addicted," growled one man who refused to look up from typing on his Blackberry as he crossed a Manhattan intersection. "I don't want to be that guy."

Complaints about Blackberry users have seeped into etiquette columns, where the high-minded gripe that terse messages on Blackberry's miniature keyboards mean grammar, capitalization and full sentences are a thing of the past.

Celebrities complain about each others' Blackberry use. In Tuesday's New York Post, Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley complained his friends supermodel Naomi Campbell and singer Mariah Carey are compulsive Blackberry users.

Some people complain of "Blackberry thumb," prompting the American Society of Hand Therapists to warn that users of small electronic gadgets can develop repetitive stress injuries. A few high-end spas offer special Blackberry massages, complete with scented balms, warm towels and hot tea.

"Your thumb cramps up," said an executive for a beverage company, standing in an office lobby, who did not want her name publicly associated with the affliction.

The legal battle over Blackberry goes back to 2002 when NTP successfully sued RIM for using its patents.

While wireless e-mail users could use other gadgets like Palm Inc.'s Treo, some users say they favor Blackberry's technology. RIM itself has argued that an "exceptional public interest" is at stake in keeping its business functioning.

In a recent study of 1,700 e-mail users in Europe and the Middle East, 75 percent said they think it is addictive. One in five qualified as 'dependent' -- people who check their e-mail compulsively and panic when they can't, according to research by Symantec Corp., a Cupertino, Calif.-based software company.

"I see my friends who are addicted," said Phillip Saperia, who runs a trade association of non-profit mental health groups. "They don't read anymore, they don't reflect."

Standing outside a Wall Street building, Kevin Delahanty said he uses his Blackberry about 100 times a day.

"Is that addiction? I would deny it," he said.

Of course, he added, life without Blackberry may not be so bad. "I'd go back to my old life, talk to people in an intelligent way," Delahanty said.