Hooked on BlackBerry

These e-mail pagers are capturing the digerati--and spawning some weird behavior

Farzad Dibachi wakes up every morning and immediately kisses his wife, Rhonda. That's to remind her how important she is, Farzad explains, as Rhonda rolls her eyes. Why does the lovely Rhonda need this reminding? Because Farzad then reaches for his BlackBerry e-mail pager and spends the next half hour in bed, assorted minutes while getting dressed, and a disturbing amount of time while driving to work (at red lights only, he insists), squinting into the pager-sized device and zipping off quick e-mails. "I love it," admits Dibachi, CEO of software company Niku Corp. (NIKU ) "I hate carrying a laptop just to do e-mail."

If you haven't seen BlackBerries, made by Canada's Research in Motion Ltd. (RIMM ), they come in two sizes: A pager look-alike, and a Palm-size device. Both have tiny keyboards you work with your thumbs, and they wirelessly pipe your e-mail to your hip, 24/7. To many of us that sounds disturbingly like the ankle bracelets they give felons under house arrest. And frankly, the first time I saw one I thought it was a toy that had slipped its pink twist tie in the Knowledge Worker Barbie accessory pack. Who in the world could type on keys the size of a grain of rice?

"TYPE IN PRIVATE."

  Anybody with thumbs, I've discovered. I now see legions of BlackBerry fans in meetings, around town, even in church. "There's something really nice about being able to type in private," says Yogen Dalal, a venture capitalist at Mayfield Fund who says he quickly got used to the tiny keys. And users are adopting a slew of quirky private and public behaviors. E-mailing in the bathroom, for example. Or obliviously entertaining onlookers in public by scowling, swearing, or even verbalizing their scrolling and typing into the tiny screens. "Dit-dit-dit-daaaa--Send!" they yelp. And I get lots of brief e-mails from BlackBerry users written in vowel-optional shorthand that Redwood City (Calif.) lab technician Evelyn Miller calls "Vanna-language"--(c u @ th mtng).

Jill W. Mullen is a chief technology officer at Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER ), a big BlackBerry customer. She says her investment bankers especially love the devices, but their impact is being felt all over the company. For example, Merrill meetings are now judged successes or failures based on how many people whip out BlackBerries instead of paying attention, she jokes. I'm told many users now call the increasingly familiar BlackBerry posture of head down, hands in the lap under the conference table, the "BlackBerry prayer."

Obviously, the device's biggest appeal is real-time info: Smythe European Motors ace Mercedes salesman Tony Spencer says his BlackBerry has won him sales from his demanding Silicon Valley clientele, such as when his sales manager e-mailed the salesforce that a silver version of a $90,000 car Spencer was test-driving with a client had become available. Spencer paged back "SOLD" on the spot. "I wouldn't take a call in that situation, and the car would have been gone by the time we got back," he says. Los Angeles attorney Nancy L. Abell even uses her BlackBerry at the bargaining table. During a difficult negotiation she zapped a change in strategy to one of her colleagues just a few chairs away. "He responded, and we were set," she says.

But can folks keep their BlackBerry use responsible, polite, and lawful? Already, some users defy airline rules about turning off devices by hiding them in their laps. Tony Spencer's wife, Chris, likes his love notes, but not the thought that he's in the car driving and typing at the same time. Oh, and one last caution to the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who "prays" often throughout the day: Your assistant does not recall BlackBerry-directed Starbuck's runs being in her job description, Bucko.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

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