It's small, addictive and used all over the City

Stephen Pritchard charts the spectacular ascent of BlackBerry, the portable email system
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The Independent Online

Some call it the "Crackberry", because people who have used it say it is as addictive as any street drug. And, returning to London from the European headquarters of Research in Motion (RIM) in Egham, Surrey, you can see there are plenty of users. RIM is the Canadian company behind the BlackBerry messaging device, and as the train makes its way through the commuter belt, RIM staff on board are using the time to clear their email inboxes.

They are doing exactly what Mike Lazaridis, RIM's founder and co-chief executive, says BlackBerry owners should: "filling their time with productive work". Globally, millions of others are doing so too. In the City, you can hardly move for people tapping into their BlackBerry. One corporate financier recently said that, at a meeting, he made everyone put their BlackBerries on the table so they couldn't check their emails surreptitiously.

Helping people stay on top of a mountain of email is what lies behind the Black-Berry phenomenon, and the boomtime- style growth of RIM. Based in Waterloo, in Canada's Ontario province, the company is listed on the US Nasdaq market as well as in Toronto. Turnover in the third quarter of 2003 was more than double that of 2002, at $153.9m (£84m). RIM is profitable and has just raised $900m in a placing; this will fund research and development and expansion into new markets, says Lazaridis.

This is good going for a company whose best-known product lacks many of the bells and whistles of its rivals. The first BlackBerries looked like overgrown pagers, with an alphanumeric keypad and a mono screen. The device did one job and one job alone: it picked up emails, and only corporate emails at that.

In a world where mobile phones are becoming more powerful with each new model, and where cafés provide broadband access to the internet, the BlackBerry seems limited, maybe even anachronistic with its small screen, although it is now available in colour. And there are no extra gadgets, such as a built-in camera or support for third-generation mobile networks.

But for Lazaridis, who came up with the concept, RIM's perseverance with the initial BlackBerry idea explains its success. The company launched the device in North America in 1999, taking advantage of the data-only wireless networks available in the US to offer buyers unlimited access to their emails for a fixed monthly fee.

To enable the service to work with a small, low-powered device, and to sell the idea of unlimited use to the network operators, the BlackBerry employs a highly efficient messag- ing system that "pushes" data out to the handheld unit. Rival systems for mobile email, based on technologies like SMS or the GPRS data standard, use up much more bandwidth.

The RIM team also built a high level of security into the original BlackBerry design, a move that has made it popular in fields such as banking, medicine and government: the US government has over 100,000 BlackBerries in use. Lose an internet-equipped mobile phone and a thief could easily steal your data, and quite possibly your identity. Lose a Black- Berry and the IT department or mobile operator can render the entire device useless at the touch of a button.

Early BlackBerry users were mostly big companies or government departments that could justify installing a BlackBerry- compatible email system to handle messages. Today, RIM also offers a version that will work with email from most internet service providers. The colour screen considerably adds to the BlackBerry's usefulness for web surfing, and RIM has gone as far as developing a prototype website specifically designed for the device. But Lazaridis is cautious about adding entertainment or games functions to the BlackBerry: much of its appeal, he believes, lies in in its simplicity.

"The problem with trying to make wireless data successful is that everyone is looking at wireless data as the product. We decided to produce a solution to the technical issues [of email access] that people would find valuable. I had been using email for a long time, and realised it would be good to get that experi- ence on a device you could carry around."

Freeing people from the need to sit at a PC to deal with a growing mountain of email is the reason the BlackBerry has been such a hit with busy executives, Lazaridis believes.

"The BlackBerry is a lifestyle product. One of the biggest benefits of the early prototypes we made at RIM was that we got to go home earlier, but were still productive. You can stay connected, and deal with urgent problems as they arise."

The device allows people to fill up dead time, letting them sift through emails on trains or at airports, and means they can stay in contact out of hours without having to be glued to a PC screen. And the "push" technology, which tells the device when messages are waiting, means you can use it as an email pager that only bleeps when that urgent message arrives.

BlackBerries will work with 3G networks when they become available, and will give faster download speeds and better web surfing. But Lazaridis is not setting out to make a type of multi-function smart phone. Although clearly an enthusiast for the internet, he is not convinced that many people want fully fledged internet access in their pockets. "If you think about web browsing, shopping or banking services, how many of those are compelling enough to want to do from a phone?"

Instead, RIM has concentrated on making sure the BlackBerry does what it sets out to do well, and for most people that is email. This means its main competitors are smart phones based on either the Symbian or Microsoft standards, rather than handheld computers such as a Palm or Pocket PC. In fact, RIM has written software for Palm handhelds and is developing it for Pocket PCs, so their users can connect to the economical and secure BlackBerry email system.

"BlackBerry can work with multiple platforms, or email systems, or carriers," says Lazaridis. "We want the experience to be available to as many people as possible. We know that once you try it, you will use it - not many sit in desk drawers. The real challenge is to get you to try it."