Email of the species

It's reduced Hollywood stars to typists, wiped out business executives' downtime and become the gadget every young City boy and girl must own at any cost. And all it does is let you read emails on the move. Nick Duerden reveals how the addictive BlackBerry (aka CrackBerry) pressed all the right buttons to become cooler than an iPod
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It's not as beautiful as an iPod and it lacks much of the technological wizardry you find packed into the latest mobile phones, but a little machine that lets you receive emails, as well as make calls, on the move has become this year's must-have gadget. Originally marketed only to business executives, the BlackBerry is suddenly proving a surprise hit with people whose need to stay in touch 24/7 is actually minimal. The reason: the Blackberry has become an A-list status symbol, an emblem not of its owner's place in the corporate world but in the social firmament (even if that social firmament is really only the local pub).

It started, as so many obsessions do, in the US. Oprah Winfrey flaunted one publicly, White House staff were spotted tapping away on theirs and when the cream of Hollywood adopted them, the country was bound to * follow. On several working visits to the US over the last couple of years, I would be told by Americans, after our initial meeting, that they would BlackBerry me. I hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about, but decided it must be something sexual. Politely, I told them that I had a girlfriend back home, but thanks all the same. "No," came the bemused response, "BlackBerry." "Eh?" "Email..."

Ah! Email! I knew exactly what email was, but why didn't they just say that in the first place? By now, a hand had already gone into their hip pocket, and while I tensed - unnecessarily, as I was to learn - they brought out a little blue thing with a screen, buttons and a flashing red light. A tiny computer, a wireless email receiver, one's entire office in dinky miniature: BlackBerry. Now, I know almost nothing about technology, and what I do know I wish I didn't, and so when confronted with this miraculous vision of the future, I simply admired it at arm's length, then went quietly about my business.

But resistance is now futile. BlackBerry is on the march, slaying nations in its wake. A friend said to me the other day that he wasn't quite sure what they were, exactly, but that he wanted one desperately. They are the Zeitgeist.

First launched in 1999 in the US and 2001 in Europe by a Canadian inventor called Mike Lazaridis, BlackBerry was initially aimed solely at the time-pressed businessman and woman. Its consumer crossover was in many ways inevitable - not least when celebrities started toting them.

Though it took five years to sell the first million around the world, things snowballed thereafter: they notched up another million sales just 10 months later, and sailed past the three million sales mark six months after that.And now, claims James Hart, head of business marketing at T-Mobile (one of the biggest suppliers in the UK), "BlackBerry is adding one million global customers each month. That's how quickly it is accelerating within the marketplace." And to cater for the booming demand, the first dedicated BlackBerry stores have opened in the US, including one in Manhattan.

In other words, then, the BlackBerry - so named, Lazaridis has said, because "it's got friendly connotations" - is fighting hard to make the standard mobile phone a quaint and superfluous antiquity (how the companies who invested in 3G technology must wince as they watch customers ignore their own state-of-the-art tomfoolery and run with hearts full of covetous lust into the arms of BlackBerry). And although it really is not as sexy as iPod, its place in the V&A Museum's current Touch Me exhibition is acknowledgement that it is already heading for design-classic status. While the Blackberry lacks a camera, it multi-tasks impressively multi-tasking: it has email, SMS text, a phone, an entire Filofax, a clock, and it even has a game on it called Brick Breaker. It has also, recently, made it into literature with the publication of a novel called Martin Lukes: Who Moved My BlackBerry?, about a middle manager whose downfall is sparked when his BlackBerry, upon which he arranges an extra-marital affair, falls into the hands of his son.

"Email has become the primary way we communicate with one another," says the book's author, Lucy Kellaway, a Financial Times columnist by day, "and it's a terrific way for conducting affairs. Via the BlackBerry, you can keep in touch wherever you are, and we are obsessed with constant communication, aren't we?"

This certainly seems to be the case for Rebecca Hill, a London-based HR manager whose job takes her all over the world. Hill proclaims herself a so-called "FlirtBerry", and conducts a series of affairs - presumably largely platonic ones - via endless thumb action.

"Travelling around the world can seriously damage my social life," she explains. "But my BlackBerry has been a real life saver. Now, when I do find time to socialise and meet guys, I can make sure I keep in contact with them from wherever I am so that they don't lose interest."

There are still some who use BlackBerry as a work tool, indeed you can't really call yourself a go-getting young executive in 2005 unless you have one slipped into your bespoke jacket pocket. Their popularity is an indication, perhaps, that we are now a nation where technology has robbed us of any hiding place and stripped away our precious downtime - you can even compose emails on a plane and then send them the minute you step into JFK.

Rachel Lodge, founder of management training company Think! consulting would certainly be lost without hers.

"Oh, I couldn't live without it," she says: the ability to receive - and promptly respond to - emails has clinched her several major deals of late. "I spend most days out and about training companies, and so before this thing came along I wouldn't be able to address any important emails until I got back into the office at six or seven o'clock at night. Now, I deal with them en route. It really is invaluable."

Lodge says that, at £25 a month to maintain (you can get deals from £17.50 which includes the handset), it imposes little financial hardship, and has also allowed her to start work again just six weeks after the birth of her baby.

"It's great. I can deal with my crying child and respond to emails at the same time. As far as clients are concerned, I'm always at my desk."

Lodge's situation is an example, says Charmaine Eggberry, the appropriately named vice president at BlackBerry's makers, Research In Motion (RIM), of "flexi-work", hitherto a fanciful concept.

"This means that people are able to leave * the office when they need to - to be with their children, for example - but remain in touch and able to deal with any business-critical items. And this," she claims, "cuts down very considerably on stress levels."

RIM has recently produced a study that suggests flexi-working BlackBerry users have found themselves able to reclaim 14 days of personal time a year; effectively a fortnight in Corfu.

Julie Dean, a music PR, isn't convinced.

"That's rubbish," she scoffs. "What it does is add another 14 days to your year, because even when you are off, you are on. As soon as people know you own one, they expect you to respond to their queries immediately. Doesn't matter if you are sick, on holiday, whatever."

That said, Dean, who says that 75 per cent of her working day consists of dealing with emails, is reliant upon hers.

"It's a curse because employers can now have you on-call all the time," she says. "But I would be lost without it."

By now, I'm keen to get in on the action myself. And, thanks to T-Mobile's Edward Williams, I'm lent a metallic blue 7290 version. It's very cute, not least when it winks at me, provocatively, to let me know I've got mail. While 80 per cent of messages I receive each day are worthless, the rest are essential to the maintenance of my life. Consequently, whenever I'm away from my desk, I crave inbox update the way a drug user does his next fix. Which, it seems, is an entirely apt comparison.

"In America," Williams tells me, "they call them CrackBerrys. Instantly addictive." He's not wrong, and the sense of freedom and mobility it bestows on me is heady. No longer do I need to feel guilty for my daily coffee break, nor the illicit affair I may or may not be conducting every other Thursday. Because it's not waterproof, I can't take it swimming with me, but otherwise the thing never leaves my pocket.

My learning curve, meanwhile, is illuminating. Music PR Julie Dean warns me to resist the temptation to respond to messages as one would a text, as research has shown that this can offend a client or employer expecting a more fulsome - and, in an ideal world, grammatically correct - answer. Indeed, one of the reasons for the BlackBerry's popularity is its proper Qwerty keyboard that lets you type with relatively graceful ease - no more fussy phone texting.

I also read a report that suggests the par- ticular model individuals choose (and there are several versions) says much about the user's character and personality traits. My 7200 series, for example, suggests that I think for myself and make quick decisions. But do I? Do I really?

Unlike many mobiles, a BlackBerry does not have a camera. The reason for this, one enthusiast tells me, is that they are "not toys".

Not a toy, then, but as hideously compulsive as any computer game. We'll become a nation of RSI sufferers before long (the American Society of Hand Therapists has already issued a "consumer education alert" in anticipatory warning). And BlackBerry's ability to worm its way into every corner of modern life means that it's only a matter of time before one is cited in a divorce case. Now that I've seen the light, as it were, relinquishing mine would be like replacing my telephone for two tin cans and a length of string, and while I'd not go as far as RIM and suggest that they are actually good for us - five portions of fruit a day is good for us - it does make 21st-century life seem considerably easier.

When I first took delivery of it, the BlackBerry sat squarely in the palm of my hand. Now, our positions have been reversed. It's got me, hook, line, sinker.

What type are you?

There are now three series of BlackBerry and, according to the manufacturers, each appeals to a different type of person.

The Styles (Sociable, trendy, young, leading, early-adopters). This group go for the 7100 series and consider themselves up-to-date with the latest technology. Some 54 per cent of those surveyed were women; with 25-to-34-year olds forming the largest group of 7100 users. Popular with entrepreneurs and people in the media spotlight.

The Fasts (Flexible, active, self-sufficient, travellers). The owner of a 7200 series is likely to be independent, someone who is often called upon to make fast decisions. Popular with people are happy mixing work and social lives. This is by far the most popular BlackBerry range - especially the 7230 and the recently launched 7290.

The Diddis (Data-intensive, disciplined, down-to-earth individuals). Users of the 7700 series. Like to work in a corporate environment as part of a team. Some 70 per cent of owners are men.

The A-list stars who are BlackBerry pickers

Now that it has broken free from the constraints of the pinstriped businessman in his first-class airport lounge, the Blackberry has become the must-have celebrity appliance of 2005. Victoria Beckham uses hers to keep in touch with her globetrotting husband (but the suggestion that he uses his for other, more illicit, matters is purely scurrilous conjecture.)

Jade Jagger, Eva Herzigova and Tom Ford have done wonders for its fashionable quotient, and even rock stars - people who pride themselves on being impossible to track down - are toting them. Among pop users are Joss Stone, Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna.

It's inevitable, of course, that entrepreneurs such as EasyJet's Stelios would find his indispensable, but less so that so many footballers are becoming similarly reliant. After Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg bought one, his teammate Thierry Henry immediately followed suit. "Playing international football means that I'm constantly travelling around the world," Ljunberg said recently. "[But] since getting my BlackBerry, staying in touch is no longer a problem. It's the coolest device."