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BlackBerry outage? Oh, the horror

January 25, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg will not stay at a certain upscale New York hotel, no matter what you say to persuade him otherwise. He remembers vividly the moment when, traveling on business, he realized that his BlackBerry didn't get service in the hotel. That's OK, thought Rosenberg, chairman of Los Angeles-based Platinum Studios -- he unsheathed a second BlackBerry, with a different cellular carrier, which he keeps on his belt for emergencies like this one.

It didn't work either.

"I walked through the halls holding both of them, looking for [reception] bars," he remembers. "Neither of them worked anywhere in the hotel." Rosenberg, who has charted Los Angeles freeways and byways, restaurants and movie theaters in terms of which BlackBerry works best where, buys the devices for all his employees and says that his organization relies heavily on their e-mail and scheduling functions. If somebody doesn't want a BlackBerry, they're in the wrong company, he says. "When I first give an employee the BlackBerry, some people find it annoying. But then they get addicted."

Now Rosenberg and about 4.3 million others are grappling with the possibility of going through "CrackBerry" withdrawal en masse. Research in Motion, which manufactures BlackBerry devices, is being threatened with an injunction stemming from a patent dispute, and on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. RIM says it has a plan to continue service even if forced to stop using the current technology, but is sketchy on details. And among BlackBerry aficionados and addicts, tension is high.

Elsewhere, BlackBerry foes celebrate. At the technology news website Digg.com, users write: "Shouldn't this read: 'CRACK-Berry Shutdown ordered, Millions of Drivers Rejoice??" and "They make people look self-important and busy" and "Die Blackberry! Die!"

There's a saying: Toss a Tinseltown player, and you'll hit a BlackBerry. Or there should be. And at the Marriott Hotel in Park City, Utah, headquarters for the Sundance Film Festival, news about the possible BlackBerry outage came as a slap. Producer Anastasia King held her BlackBerry in her lap, waiting for a print of her film -- a look at black disenfranchisement in recent elections -- to arrive for its Sundance premiere. Since buying the device nine months ago, "it has really improved my work flow so that I can be mobile," she said. The title of her film is an apt metaphor for the BlackBerry crisis: "American Blackout."

Nearby, Sydney Levine wore her BlackBerry on a dainty silver chain around her neck. She looked stricken at the idea of losing service. "We are a worldwide company," said Levine, president of Filmfinders, a Sundance festival sponsor. "We get hundreds of e-mails a day. If we had to wait for computers to access our e-mail, I don't know how I'd get my work done."

Many BlackBerry users will tell you: This is life or death. In a few cases, they're not kidding. At MedStar Health, a nonprofit that runs seven hospitals in Baltimore and Washington, about 460 executives and managers use BlackBerrys to keep in touch, says Sameer Bade, assistant vice president. "During some recent communication outages, BlackBerrys were the only way we could communicate with critical service employees," Bade says, and warns that uninterrupted communication is vital to hospitals in the nation's capital.

But there was a time before BlackBerrys, wasn't there? And doctors still healed the sick; movies still came out. These were simpler, more human times, say BlackBerry critics, many of them the spouses or children of vehement BlackBerry enthusiasts. Pamela Rosenberg actually cheered when she saw on the news that RIM was in trouble -- to the chagrin of her husband, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, he of the dual BlackBerrys.

"We can't have a nice dinner or go to a movie without him getting e-mails," says Pamela Rosenberg. "It's constant, all day and all night, in the middle of a conversation." Rosenberg rues the day she made her husband promise to get rid of the laptop he once toted everywhere; that was the day he purchased a BlackBerry. "At least with the laptop he couldn't hide very far. Now I find him hiding out with it in the dressing room closets. I have to take my hand and put it over the BlackBerry if I want to get his attention."

In his own defense ... well, actually, Scott Rosenberg mounts no defense. Guilty as charged. "We were on a family vacation once," he says, "and everybody was having dinner. I excused myself to go to the restroom, but I didn't use the facilities. I just went in there and wrote on my BlackBerry for half an hour. Then I came back to the table and said I had a stomachache. My uncle looked at me and whispered: 'BlackBerry.' "

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