Washington lawyer William Wilhelm knows from experience that not everybody loves his BlackBerry as much as he does.
"I once had a date become apoplectic because we were in the airport terminal before vacation, and I did the one final BlackBerry check," Wilhelm said. The girlfriend was fed up with a relationship punctuated by Wilhelm fiddling with the wireless device to check hundreds of e-mails a day.
People write e-mail anywhere with Blackberrys.
(Justin Sullivan -- AP)
BlackBerrys, sometimes referred to as CrackBerrys among addicted adherents, make e-mail portable, available anytime and almost anywhere. Airline delays become office time. An elevator ride becomes a chance to dash off a reply. A companion's restroom trip at a restaurant provides just enough time to close a deal electronically.
For some, like Wilhelm, the pocket-size devices have created a borderless world of new opportunities for multitasking. BlackBerry -- and a growing number of cell phones like them that come with tiny keyboards -- have made it easier and more tempting than ever to sneak in work during personal time, and personal messaging at work.
But as instant e-mail devices accelerate the cadence of work life, there are increasing complaints that they whittle away at time that people once used to give undivided attention to family or co-workers, or to find solitude on the beach or during the daily commute.
E-mail on the go also has raised new questions of electronic etiquette. Most people have learned to shut off their portable phones or set them to vibrate silently during business meetings and social events. There's no such consensus yet on proper behavior for those who silently, relentlessly, punch out BlackBerry messages with their thumbs.
In a recent survey by Harris Interactive commissioned by wireless provider T-Mobile USA Inc., 15 percent of wireless-device users said they have e-mailed from a restroom, 19 percent while eating in a restaurant, and 21 percent while talking to friends or family.
BlackBerry, introduced in 1999, is the most prominent example of a broader wireless e-mail phenomenon. About 1.6 million BlackBerrys are used in the United States, according to the maker, Research in Motion Ltd. of Ontario, Canada. In addition, there are more than 14 million "smart phones" -- mobile phones with keypads and Web browsers -- among the 169 million cell phones in use in the United States, according to Instat/MDR, a market research company. The firm predicts the number of smart phones will increase 44 percent a year over the next five years.
At $200 to $500 for recent models, plus monthly connection charges of about $40, BlackBerrys, Treos and other e-mail-friendly devices are still used mostly by highly paid professionals. Through wireless carriers, Research in Motion sells BlackBerrys to law firms, health care companies, real estate agents and government agencies.
Increasingly, wireless e-mail gadgets are being marketed to a broader audience. T-Mobile's flip-top Sidekick is popular among young consumers even though its price approaches that of a BlackBerry. This week, AT&T Wireless introduced Ogo, a $99 wireless device that offers e-mail and messaging service for $17.99 a month.