BlackBerry madness claims another victim

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The Gazette, Monday, July 17, 2006

The other day, I finally broke down and bought a BlackBerry. I'd been holding out since at least the 2004 election, when they first appeared on the scene as the new preferred weapons of the journalistic trade.

My position was that if people needed to reach me, they could call the office or my cellphone and leave a message on my voicemail, or send an email. That was enough communications gadgets for me.

Besides, the BlackBerry promotes antisocial behaviour. There's a place called the Martini Ranch in Ottawa where the political class gathers after work. And I've fallen into the habit of lecturing colleagues on their bad manners - being on their BlackBerries in the middle of our conversations at happy hour. People get on them in the middle of lunch or dinner. In the last campaign, hacks and flacks alike barely listened to speeches and news conferences. They were too busy hunched over their BlackBerries.

But lately, I must acknowledge, there have been important gaps between incoming and outgoing emails. Even with the office emails forwarding to my laptop, at home or on the road, there have been a number of important missed messages and phone calls.

Then I noticed a Bell newspaper ad - BlackBerries were on sale for $49, down from $449. I showed it to Suzanne Ostiguy McIntyre, our vice-president in charge of operations at the Institute for Research on Public Policy. "How can they afford to give them away like that?" asked Suzanne, who has a flinty eye for a bargain. She immediately checked the fine print. "It must be the bundle of services you have to buy with it," I suggested.

Which turned out to be the case when I checked it out at the Phone Booth at Fairview in Pointe Claire. A very pleasant young man named Mike Schacter set me with up with an email and phone account, and explained the service options.

Three hundred fifty minutes of text messaging per month would cost $40 a month. So would 350 minutes of air time for the phone. That's $80 a month, or nearly a thousand dollars a year. And the service agreement is for three years. That's nearly three thousand bucks of guaranteed cash, right to Bell's bottom line. There's the answer to Suzanne's question of how Bell can afford to give them away.

"These things are addictive," Mike warned. "That's why they're called CrackBerries." For Mike this is a summer job between graduation from University of Ottawa law school and his articling year in Montreal. Any firm would be lucky to get him. "That should be enough," he said, "you can always upgrade later on."

What a great business Research in Motion has built. It has no retail presence and, thus, no overhead costs outside their own production line. But it is a world renowned brand, with the phone and cable companies fighting over the surging BlackBerry segment of the communications industry.

Now that I've got one, I can see the advantages - wireless email, Internet and phone wherever you go. Complete connectivity, all the time, in something that fits in the palm of the hand. I can also see why the BlackBerry is addictive. Why, you can even take it golfing. While many golf courses ban or discourage cell- phones, they have no policy on BlackBerries.

But the keyboard is maddening. And the letters are in all the wrong places. Typing with my thumbs? I don't think so. Where is the darn insert key anyway? Writing this column on it would take forever.

We are probably due for an impact study on the productivity losses caused by people constantly sending BB messages: Where are you, what are you doing or, as in the unfortunate instance of Scott Brison on the Martin government rolling on income-trust rulings, "u happy?"

It's also easy to see why wire-line telephones are a declining segment of the telecom industry. First with cellphones and now with BlackBerries, wire-line phone service is basically redundant, except for Internet dial-up service, which is itself in decline.

I fired off my first BlackBerry to a special friend.

"Congratulations on the purchase," she wrote back. "Welcome to the BB era, your life will be changed forever."

But in one very welcome sense, it hasn't. It doesn't work at the lake, which means no phone and wireless Internet in the canoe.

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