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The new BlackBerry Communication devices garner rave reviews from devotees

Attorney Lisa L. Smith had a pressing question about a product-liability case she was handling.

She was in a judge's chambers in Buffalo, while her co-counsel and client were in a Mississippi courtroom that barred cell phones.

So Smith tapped out her query on her BlackBerry and sent it by e-mail to the pair in Mississippi. They responded on the co-counsel's BlackBerry, and Smith quickly resolved the case.

"I love it. There's a reason they call it the 'CrackBerry.' You become addicted to it," said Smith, a partner with Phillips Lytle.

Smith's experience shows the power of BlackBerry, a highly portable gadget that allows people to send and receive e-mail, surf the Internet, set schedules and even make calls.

You see Blackberrys in action everywhere -- people sitting hunched over, typing with their thumbs on a small electronic device.

The devices have won over 5 million customers, including top officials at global corporations, law-enforcement agencies and colleges.

"I take mine everywhere I go," said William J. Mariani, Erie Community College president.

However, a lengthy legal fight, settled earlier this month, exposed BlackBerry's vulnerability. The threat of a shutdown prompted some companies that rely on the devices to start looking for alterna tives. "We're always concerned, because every day we're investing more and more in the technology," said Brian Eckert, Phillips Lytle's director of finance and administration.

BlackBerrys, produced by Research in Motion, a company based in Waterloo, Ont., are the most popular of several types of personal digital assistants, or PDAs -- hand-held devices that allow wireless e-mail access.

The BlackBerry 8700c, the most advanced version of the device, retails for $349.99, but the price is lower if a service plan is purchased.

"I find for the majority of things I'm using it for, it's very convenient," said Ronald Sultemeier, a BlackBerry user and president of gaming and entertainment for Delaware North Cos. "I'm flying this afternoon. As soon as I land, I'll turn it on."

>Changes communication

Use of the device, with a keypad larger than a cell phone's but smaller than a laptop computer's, even has an impact on what people say when they communicate, devotees said.

"It forces you to be more concise in your responses, and it saves a lot of time, I think," said Mariani, the ECC president.

BlackBerrys have a few nonbusiness uses as well. In communities that have a high number of young, single professionals, the BlackBerry is a convenient tool for after-hours, e-mail flirting. The practice is known as "blirting."

It's easy to get addicted to a BlackBerry. Smith, the Phillips Lytle lawyer, said she got anxious last month after her flight landed in California and -- for a few moments -- she couldn't get her BlackBerry to work.

"I do switch it off. It's important to switch it off," said Alan Rae, vice president of marketing and business development for Nanodynamics. Rae has had a BlackBerry since 2002 and is on his fourth version of the device.

Several area companies have adopted BlackBerrys, typically for executives and "road warriors" who travel frequently. Federal law-enforcement agents also rely on them.

About 10 lawyers in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Western New York use BlackBerrys, and Peter J. Ahearn, special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office, has one as well.

Ahearn can't use a BlackBerry to access the FBI's e-mail system because of security concerns. But he was issued a separate FBI e-mail account that he can use to send and receive nonclassified e-mails. "It's a great device for business. It's critical," Ahearn said.

When it became clear the bill renewing the Patriot Act would pass Congress, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen M. Mehltretter got the news in a Department of Justice e-mail sent to her BlackBerry. "Unfortunately, now we're in an age in which a very high percentage of our communication comes through electronically. And continuing to have access to that when you're out of the office . . . is very advantageous," Mehltretter said.

>Legal threat

The recent legal fight threatened the widespread and growing use of BlackBerrys. In brief, a small Virginia-based company named NTP sued RIM, claiming the BlackBerry maker had infringed on NTP patents.

A jury ruled in NTP's favor in 2002, and the two companies had wrangled in federal court for the past four years.

As this dragged on, Western New York companies explored their options in case the judge overseeing the case ordered a service shutdown.

At Phillips Lytle, about 36 lawyers have personal or company-owned BlackBerrys, Eckert said. The firm was prepared to give its attorneys air cards, which provide broadband Internet access in places that have cell phone service, he said.

Rich Products and Delaware North worked with RIM on technologies that would allow companies to continue using their BlackBerrys with, RIM insisted, no impact on service. Delaware North has issued about 100 BlackBerrys to its workers.

>$612.5 million to settle

Rich Products, where about 200 employees worldwide have BlackBerrys, also held a trial run with a batch of Treos, another hand-held device with e-mail access, said Jim Rogers, manager of technical operations.

Early this month, RIM agreed to pay NTP $612.5 million to settle the suit.

"Whether there was a risk of the BlackBerry ever ending up in the junk heap, I don't think that was a very realistic possibility. Because there was so much at stake here," said Shubha Ghosh, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo and Southern Methodist University who specializes in intellectual property.

For the company, the deal couldn't come soon enough. RIM released a revised report stating that new BlackBerry subscriptions and overall revenue for the most recent quarter would be far lower than previously estimated, thanks to uncertainty over the patent fight.

Still, companies in Western New York say they're sticking with BlackBerry for now. "The BlackBerry capability itself is excellent and may be second to none," said Rich Products' Rogers.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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