A year or so ago, they were just another high-geek gadget. But suddenly they've become the de rigueur accessory in fast-paced corporate and political circles -- one of those how-did-we-ever-live-without-it technologies that is remaking the workplace.
So it probably should come as no surprise in this back-to-school season to find the BlackBerry taking a front seat in the classroom.
The University of Maryland announced last week that its business school is giving the wireless handheld communicators to all of its 320 full-time MBA students this fall.
The devices -- a gift to the school from Nextel Communications, which is also providing the data network to link them to the Internet -- will be incorporated into the curriculum in an effort to prepare students for the increasingly digitized and frenetic workplaces they soon hope to join, officials said.
"We're trying to create an educational environment without boundaries," said Cherie Scricca, associate dean of the master's program and career management at the university's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
MBA students spend much of their time working on projects in teams outside the classroom, Scricca noted. With the BlackBerrys, "the entire community can now communicate with each other 24/7 and always be connected," she said.
The program may be a first in the ever-competitive world of campus technology. Several colleges across the country have required students to acquire computers, with a few providing laptops for free. This fall, Duke University will give all freshmen Apple iPods, which are best known for their music-storing abilities but which the school intends for use on course-related material as well.
Yet university officials say they believe theirs may be the first business school to distribute wireless communicators -- in this case, the BlackBerry 7510, retail $350 -- to its students on a widespread basis.
Some may wonder why. Most instructors -- at Maryland as well as in undergraduate and graduate programs across the country -- already use e-mail and the Internet to transmit course material and communicate with their students.
But Scricca argues that e-mail has its limitations. "Not all students have the ability to access their e-mail -- they don't have or own their own laptops. We have [computer] labs here, but they're not always open," she said.
BlackBerry messages, meanwhile, can be sent or received whenever and wherever the owner is carrying the pocket-sized device.
Scricca added that, naturally, students will be allowed to turn off their BlackBerrys when they please.
One faculty member applauded the program. "Increasingly, we communicate with our students across long distances," said Peter Morici, a professor of international business. "This allows more contact."
In addition, he said, the BlackBerry lifestyle will prepare students for the multi-tasking pager/cell phone/e-mail/instant messaging habits of today's business world.
"They will become better able to deal with the fragmentation of their time that comes with the rise of wireless technology," he said.
Sounds exhausting. And, indeed, Scricca said, faculty members are interested in studying exactly what kind of effect this nonstop communication has on the business program. "Part of this experiment is to see how a community deals with this," she said.
Matthew Welsh, a first-year MBA student from Silver Spring, said in an e-mail transmitted from his new BlackBerry that he had already come to rely on the device -- affectionately dubbed CrackBerry in some circles of e-mail addicts -- for organizing his schedules, reading financial news and contacting fellow students.
"I believe group projects, job searches and networking will all be easier since we'll be connected wherever we go," he wrote. "I just hope I don't lose it or I think I'll have to go to rehab!"