Published: Monday, January 23, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 9:15 p.m.
There's a reason it's called a "crackberry." Those who have them say once you use a BlackBerry, you are not only hooked, you can't imagine life without one.
People who use these devices that combine voice, data and wireless messaging capabilities all in one palm-sized package rely so heavily on them that if they were to lose the service, words like "catastrophe" and "impossible" spring from their lips.
Freddie Wehbe, a self-proclaimed "addict," said without a moment's hesitation, "I wouldn't be in business without it." The owner of six Gator Dominos pizza stores said "I don't really have an office; it's my phone. I am operating a business out of this piece of equipment.
"I can't survive without my phone and e-mail. I get about 600 to 700 real e-mails a day and close to 150 phone calls."
Before he owned a BlackBerry, he worked with two mobile phones and had to schedule time throughout the day to check e-mails at a computer, and later devoting three hours a night to replying and sending.
He said it took a month to learn how the device works, but now he can navigate the tiny keypad almost without looking. A large man with hands to match, he said once he mastered the buttons, he had no problem text-messaging or making and replying to calls, which he does throughout the course of the day.
"If I didn't have this, I would lose all efficiency. It would be a catastrophe."
But there is a chance BlackBerry could cease operations in the United States. A four-year-old U.S. District Court case charging BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion Ltd. of Canada with stealing the patent NTP Inc. of Virginia says it owns is plodding through the courts. An appeals court last year upheld a finding that the service infringed patents owned by NTP Inc. A $450 million settlement reached in March 2005 collapsed three months later when a judge ruled it was unenforceable.
RIM must either win this court case or pay to license the patents from NTP to avoid shutting down.
RIM's claim is BlackBerry is a vital part of the critical infrastructure of the Unites States, including Wall Street and homeland security, and would wreak widespread havoc if stopped. BlackBerry is clearly not just a techno-toy.
In a message sent on his BlackBerry wireless handheld, Alachua County Sheriff's Captain Jim Troiano agreed.
"I have really become attached to my BlackBerry. I cannot believe how much additional work I have accomplished while away from the normal setting of my office. Idle time is now easily turned into productive time."
ASO was using Alltel and Nextel services, but since Alltel did not have the "push-to-talk" capability - much like walkie-talkies - and Nextel did, Troiano was given a Nextel BlackBerry to try. "The trial period was all that I needed. ... During this time, I had a cell phone, a pager and an older PDA - one that did not have communications capability. It was merely a calendar and an address book. I wanted some thing that would consolidate all of them together.
"Looking at the use from a law-enforcement standpoint, I have found its use very valuable. From getting messages, to being able to access the Internet, to having your calendar and address book at your fingertips all make my job easier and more effective. It also helps in the field when you need immediate access to information. Since we do not have computers as standard items in our patrol cars, devices like this places the information at your fingertips." He said most of ASO's commanding officers now carry a BlackBerry.
Troiano is attending the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., for eight weeks with more than 250 local, state, federal, military and international students receiving advanced management and executive law enforcement training. He uses his BlackBerry to communicate and keep a pulse on daily activities, unusual circumstances, and criminal investigations here without having to walk a long way to a computer or wait in crowded lines for the few computers that are available for use.
NTP Inc. last week proposed that if it won the case, Blackberry customers would get a 30-day grace period before any cutoff. Responses from both sides on that action are due Feb. 1. In one scenario, government officials would be exempt from the cutoff.
Wehbe has been watching the court case closely, in case he needs to make a quick switch. There are alternatives by Nokia, Motorola and Microsoft waiting in the wings to take up the slack in the event BlackBerry does disappear.
California-based Palm offers the Treo smartphone, powered by Microsoft software. Brent Christensen, president and chief economic development officer for the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, now uses a Treo. "I did have a BlackBerry for a while but could not get it to talk to my calendar and contacts list in GroupWise. The Treo is better, but certainly not perfect," he said.
Karen Bricklemeyer CEO of the United Way of North Central Florida uses an HP Ipaq because she couldn't get her BlackBerry in synch with her computer system either. But she says her device has made life a lot easier for her. "I am in and out of the office so much, this allows me to delete e-mails with no relevance, to respond with a short reply if needed, or forward the message to someone on staff who can better address the issue. I can do this while waiting for an appointment or other spare time.
"Then when I get back into the office, I have the luxury to roam around and interact with people face to face rather than immediately sitting down in front of a computer to check if any messages are urgent."
The mother of two small children and whose husband is currently in Iraq, Bricklemeyer appreciates being available via different kids of communication - voice or typed - all the time. "But you have to have discipline with it. You need to know when to put it down."
Joe DiPietro, professor and dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Sciences, is nicknamed "Mr. BlackBerry" by his family, friends and co-workers.
"My wife laments that I am addicted," he admits. But he is quick to spell out its many advantages. "It definitely enhances my efficiency, being able to have a phone and a PDA (personal digital assistant) all in one system. I use the Web as a phone book all the time. You simply highlight the number and it dials it up, it's really handy that way to keep in contact with the office. If I am on the road, I can have documents e-mailed to me. I can check the main calendar from anywhere in the country and not double book an appointment."
There are downsides to having a BlackBerry, he said. "One is, you're working all the time. Another is it's hard to resist. If you have it set to vibrate in the holster every time an e-mail comes in, you have a tendency to grab it."
Before his BlackBerry, DiPietro had a PDA that needed to be hot-synched with a computer, a cell phone and a pager. He sat and browsed through hundreds of e-mails a day.
DiPietro will be moving in February to become vice president of the Agricultural Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He will leave UF's BlackBerry here and has ordered another one to be waiting for him at UT. But this will mean hours, even days, without a BlackBerry by his side.
How will that feel?
"I don't even want to think about it."
Marina Blomberg can be reached at (352) 374-5025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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