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banner Monday, 24 September, 2001, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
Gadgets get fruity
Two Blackberry handheld computers Research In Motion
Research in Motion's Blackberry handhelds
Another week, another gadget. BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward reports on one which has taken the US by storm, but which may have a more troubled time in the UK.

History does not record what was the biggest blackberry ever.

The Black Butte and Kiowa strains of this popular fruit are thought to produce the biggest berries - some of which are up to five centimetres in length.

But another Blackberry has them all beaten. This one weighs in at a hefty, as far as berries are concerned, 139 grammes and, in its smallest form, is almost nine centimetres long.

Of course, this big Blackberry is not a fruit at all. You can't turn it into jam and spread it on your toast. No, it is a wireless pager that can send and receive e-mail.

Box of clicks

Since it was launched in the US in mid-1999, the Blackberry has been hugely popular.

Some have even dubbed it the "crack-berry" because using it is so addictive. The gadget lets people pick up e-mail messages wherever they are. No logging in, no finding a phone line or web terminal. Just a box in your pocket with a nifty keyboard onboard that lets you read and reply.

Blackberry 950 wireless pager Research In Motion
The Blackberry 950
Now, the Blackberry has been launched in the UK. Last week, MM02 (the mobile network formerly known as BT Cellnet), announced that those companies that signed up for it would soon be getting the little black handhelds that they ordered months ago. Sadly for gadget lovers, the Blackberry is only available to companies. It is not cheap either. Each one costs more than 400.

The US, just like Europe and the rest of the world, is a big fan of mobile phones. However, the US, unlike Europe and much of the rest of the world, does not make much use of SMS text messages.

This is because the regulatory history of the US phone networks has left them fragmented and means it is hard to use one phone throughout the country. Most of these networks are built around technology that does not support the same sort of short message services. If Americans need to get messages, they have a "beeper" or pager.

But the Blackberry has proved popular with companies keen to ensure their staff are always in touch even when they are out of the office. Research In Motion, the creators of the Blackberry, say more than 10,000 companies are using the gadget.

Handheld head-to-head

In Europe and elsewhere, however, it will face stiff competition.

For a start, the Blackberry is expensive compared with mobile phones (which are now almost so cheap they can be given away with petrol), and companies have to do quite a lot of work behind the scenes to get it working and ensure e-mail is forwarded to folk on the road.

The manufacturer's claim that the device receives messages "any and every time" will appear dated to sophisticated Europeans who have been using SMS for years. In the UK alone, a billion SMS messages are sent every month. Admittedly, they are limited in length and sometimes fiddly to type, but there is no denying their popularity.

Now, in the UK, hybrid devices that combine a handheld computer with a mobile phone are starting to appear. Ericsson has long touted its R380 smart phone; Mitsubishi's has the Trium Mondo; and Sagem's WA3050 combines a GSM phone with a Pocket PC type device. There are also add-ons for other popular handhelds, such as the Handspring Visor, that add phone-like capabilities.

With a bit of tinkering, these gadgets can be used to pick up e-mail, send and receive SMS and generally do all the things that the Blackberry promises it will be able to - and make phone calls too.

Combine this with a recession that means companies are reluctant to spend money, and the possibility must be raised that this might be one Blackberry which runs out of juice all too soon.

See also:

18 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Gadgets are growing up
26 Apr 01 | UK
Secrets of good phones
10 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Reverse charge your web shopping
31 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Eat yourself a win
18 Jul 01 | New Media
Lord of the Rings goes mobile
12 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mobile divorce unacceptable, says Malaysia
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