As anyone who has seen a news program in the past six months knows, the BlackBerry wireless e-mail service was battling for its life, and finally was guaranteed its survival last month. But if it had gone away, would that have been so bad? Think about it: No more three a.m. buzzing on your nightstand. No more watching attendees trying (or not) to hide their e-mail usage during your meetings.
BlackBerry's assured existence, though, does not mean that planners need to use it. In fact, plenty of alternatives exist for instant e-mail and Web access. While BlackBerry is widely seen as the exclusive tool of business movers and shakers, in reality, "the number of mobile phones with Internet connectivity will soon exceed that of PCs," according to technology analysts The Butler Group.
Right now, the most popular BlackBerry alternative is Palm Inc.'s Treo. It's currently available in two versions: the Treo 650, based on the Palm operating system, for the Cingular, Verizon, and Sprint networks; and the Treo 700W, based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system, which runs on Verizon Wireless. International travelers can also purchase an "unlocked" GSM Treo 650 Smartphone ($600) that will work with almost any GSM/GPRS network, the standard outside the U.S.
Like BlackBerry phones, the Treos offer Web and real-time access to e-mail, which you can thumb through and reply to using the tiny but workable alphanumeric keyboard. Unlike BlackBerry, the Treo also includes a camera and music-player capability, and has an SD slot for cards so you can save photos, videos, music, and other data. And many people feel the screen on the Treo is much clearer and sharper than that of the BlackBerry. However, like any relatively new item, the Treo has also been reported to occasionally crash or have audio problems.
Another "smart phone" alternative is the soon-to-launch Motorola Q phone. At just 11.5 millimeters thick, it's billed as the world's thinnest QWERTY-keyboard phone, combining voice, data, and multimedia in a package that's razor-thin. It includes a thumbwheel, a big color screen, a 1.3-megapixel camera, an MP3 music player, and Bluetooth wireless for connecting headphones.
But on a corporate level, transitioning away from BlackBerry has its costs. Technology research firm J. Gold Associates estimates it would cost a business $845,000 to migrate 1,000 users to a new wireless e-mail unit and software system. On the flip side, wireless Internet access is coming to the masses, and the price is right. If you can handle reading your e-mail via phone, but don't mind the lack of a typing keyboard since you don't need to reply much, you can get an Internet-capable phone for less than $200. For example, Verizon is offering its LG VX 8100 V CAST music phone for $200 with a $50 online discount. You get a phone with two speakers, a bright color screen, a memory-card slot, a camera, and music player, plus Internet access by adding Verizon's Mobile Web 2.0—which starts at an additional five dollars a month plus airtime. In fact, I use mine to check e-mail (it supports AOL, MSN Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail, though you can't view attachments), to play music, and to view news, sports, and entertainment info. And unlike a BlackBerry or Treo, my phone doesn't insist on beeping or buzzing to announce every new message.
Extra Bytes: Skin Is In
Yes, you've got a heavy case to protect your laptop when you travel. But do you want to lug that around the office? Put your portable in a skin-tight portfolio: CaseLogic offers a water-resistant neoprene laptop sleeve to carry a laptop around a meeting site, or to make a briefcase or purse a laptop case. Available in black, green, or soothing blue, the skin weighs 11 ounces and includes a "power pocket" for its charger. $24.99 at www.caselogic.com.