Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

The Blackberry Guys

What's the surest sign that a product has become a pop-culture phenomenon? When it becomes generic, like Kleenex, Q-Tips, Jell-O. BlackBerry has joined the club. It all began in 1992, when Mike Lazaridis, a Turkish-born tech whiz, wooed Harvard M.B.A. Jim Balsillie to the quiet college town of Waterloo, Ont., where he had founded Research in Motion.

E-mail was still in its infancy, cell phones weren't much smaller than boom boxes, and the company initially focused on film-editing technology. But Lazaridis saw the future of handheld communication, and Balsillie knew how to sell it.

In the go-go days of the late '90s, they targeted Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley with the high-tech toy, and along the way they hooked former Vice President Al Gore. By the time Oprah Winfrey called it one of her favorite things in 2003, BlackBerry had become a verb. To critics of the addictive device, it became the CrackBerry.

My wife is among the skeptics because I'm a candidate for BlackBerrys Anonymous. It's with me almost all the time: office, home, gym—even on the air. I'm prohibited from checking it at the kitchen table but once managed to sneak it into my daughter's preschool orientation—a mistake I won't make again.

I do wonder who's right, whether the BlackBerry is more a curse or a blessing. You're liberated from the office but never really off the clock. Information is literally at your fingertips, but does that really make us wiser or just overloaded? It's easier to hook up with new friends and stay in touch with old ones. But does that also make it easier to avoid the deeper connections that happen face to face (when we aren't tempted to steal a glance at the BlackBerry on the table)?

Lazaridis and Balsillie have made a fortune with their business and cultural breakthrough. That makes the BlackBerry a case study for M.B.A.s—and maybe philosophers too.

Stephanopoulos is host of the ABC News program This Week

From the Archive
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