The rise and rise of the BlackBerry: why the hand-held device is now the gadget of choice

The Labour Party is not in the habit of discussing its own MPs' deficiencies but, when the idea of replacing their pagers with BlackBerry handheld devices first surfaced just before Christmas, a party source had doubts: "To be honest, we weren't sure all our lot could work them," he said. It was some admission considering one reviewer had just concluded that the gadget could be mastered by "higher primates within 10 minutes".

Labour could be forgiven for expecting Alastair Campbell, a man who once directed its communications, to get to grips with the sleek, £200, pocket-sized device that gives access to e-mails while on the move.

But he is evidently not the higher primate they thought he was. After he accidentally dispatched a fruity BlackBerry missive to Newsnight telling them to "fuck off and cover something important you twats" the party was insisting yesterday that the use of such gadgets proved it was forward-looking. Mr Campbell admits he is inept at "this Blackberry malarkey".

His enthusiasm is shared by two million people worldwide. The gadget is known as "Crack-berry", so addictive is the ability to read and write messages while in a taxi, on a train, in the bath or during a meeting. David Beckham is said to be among celebrity users and Bill Gates was an early adopter.

The device, launched in Britain by the Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM) in 2001, was chunkier than a mobile telephone or electronic personal organiser. But when it came to sending e-mails it had something every mobile lacked: a Qwerty keyboard which, even though you had to type with two thumbs, made long messages much easier.

The device's place among the political classes was demonstrated on Gordon Brown's recent trip to Africa, when his chief economic adviser, Ed Miliband, was seen tapping into such a device during a tour of one of Tanzania's most impoverished villages.

But carrying a BlackBerry does carry risks for politicians. On Washington's Capitol Hill, where 5,000 are in use across Congress after the House of Representatives voted to issue them to members, the gadgets are said to have become the dating device of choice, rather than a means of passing on earnest policy proposals. There are also health risks attached. Only two weeks ago, doctors at Imperial College, London, warned of a new medical phenomenon best described a "BlackBerry Thumb", caused by overuse of the keyboard. "The thumb is designed to flex and rotate in all directions. It works differently from the fingers," warned Sean Hughes, the college's professor of orthopaedic surgery, who said prolonged use of the device could cause wear and tear on the thumb and even lead to osteoarthritis.

Ergonomics experts at Cornell University in New York fear that the BlackBerry will have the same effect on thumbs that computer games did in the early 1990s.

The BlackBerry purists believe Mr Campbell might also want to examine his keyboard etiquette. He seems to employ a truncated text message style rather than the more traditional in-full mode that is the communication method of choice among users of the gadgets.

If, as his use of the "send" button suggests, Mr Campbell finds his keypad takes some adjusting to, then things may get worse before they get better for him. The latest BlackBerry model (7100) introduces an entirely new keyboard layout - five keys across and four down. In effect, it means users will need to learn an entirely new way of typing.

In the meantime, Research in Motion felt unable to make commercial capital out of its place in the headlines yesterday. "Sending an e-mail from your BlackBerry can sometimes feel more informal and relaxed than sending one from your PC," said Sarah West, RIM's European head of corporate marketing. "But users should remember that the same commonsense rules apply. We recommend that all users check the content of their e-mails and who they are sending them to.''

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY SINCE...

TELEGRAPH

Pioneered by British and German engineers, the electronic telegraph was first patented in 1837 by Samuel Morse who, the following year, invented the dot and dash code to transmit letters. A network of telegraph lines soon spread across the US and, in 1866, the first transatlantic cable link was established. In 1910, the first wireless resulting in the capture of a criminal was sent by the captain of the SS Montrose who recognised Dr Crippen and his lover Ethel le Neve among the boat's passengers.

TELEPHONE

Developed by the Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the first telephone linked a room in his Boston house with the cellar. Bell's first message was spoken to his assistant Mr Watson downstairs - "Do you understand what I say" - but as the machine only allowed for one-way communication Watson was forced to run upstairs with his answer. The modern handset was created when a Swedish engineer tied a microphone and earphone to a stick so he could keep a hand free

MOBILE PHONE

The basis for mobile phones was developed in the 1940s, but the first modern handset was invented in 1973, and the first commercial network was not launched until 1982. Early portable phones included a cumbersome base unit the size of a briefcase, and smaller pocket models were not widely available until the mid-1990s. Folding mobiles were intentionally copied from the communicators used on Star Trek.

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