Let's be real. The reason that cell phones, BlackBerrys, and other hand-held gadgets of all descriptions have taken over the civilized world is not that these things are convenient, useful, and occasionally life-saving business devices. (BlackBerrys, in particular, have worked in a number of recent disasters when cell phones have not.)
No. It's because they are cool.
They have lights. They have buttons. They go boop and beep. Our limbic systems respond to these cues powerfully; possibly our tree-dwelling ancestors felt something comparably righteous when they first used their opposable thumbs to pick up sharp stones or stout sticks. Yes, they thought. With this I can rock out. With this I Am Somebody. Nowadays all the dreariest corporate type need do is whip out his Treo or GPS phone in the airport and for a second he is no longer a 21st-century Babbitt. He is Captain Kirk or Flash Gordon. A high-tech swashbuckler.
Not something to be dismissed lightly. It is no accident that the semipermanent crouch of folks scanning their PDAs has come to be known as the "BlackBerry prayer."
Naturally the arrival of something as spiritually heavy, as species changing, as this has not been without dislocations. A lot of us not only groove on our PDAs, we can't put them down. Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing director of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore, asks: "Why do you need to send me a BlackBerry e-mail about a phone call next week? Why do you need to check your e-mail at 1 a.m. after leaving a bar on a Friday night?" The answer, Blinkoff says, is "technology changes so fast, but our behavior changes slowly. The technology leapfrogs our behavior and we have to go back and fill in the gaps. Every technology does this. Look at cell phones. People now know when it's okay to pick up a call and when to put it down. That hasn't happened yet with PDAs."
And then there are those who fret about the damage, social and physical, wrought by what they half cleverly refer to as "Crackberries." They lament the decline of public manners and predict that poor thumb-typing habits could cripple a generation raised on text messaging and Game Boy playing. A small price to pay, it seems to us.
On the facing page are four of the newest, most advanced thumb-cripplers on the market. (Check your wireless provider for availability and prices.) We've labeled them according to what kind of high-tech swashbuckler will find them most desirable. And while they're all different, any one of them will make you look really cool.
You are the boss, the king, the maximum leader. Is there any reason for you to go with anything but the reigning champ of the mobile e-mail world? No, there is not. RIM's 7100g (about $399) has all the features people love about their BlackBerrys, in a new, slim package. Unlike many portables the 7100g has no camera, but it supports up to 10 e-mail accounts and includes a speakerphone, 32 megabytes of built-in memory, a full keyboard, and Bluetooth capability.
You are always connected, the earliest of early adopters, the Windows cyberjock par excellence. And the HP iPaq h6315 Pocket PC (about $599) comes with everything you need. Pocket PC versions of Outlook, Word, Explorer, and Excel are built in. A sizable keyboard (included) snaps on for typing e-mails, instant messages, or anything else you can think of. The iPaq also features a camera, a speakerphone, and, unlike most portables, Wi-Fi capability.
You gotta move, you're a rolling stone, you got the key to the highway. The Nokia 9300 (not priced at presstime) is the perfect phone for the ramblin' man or woman who wants to leave the laptop at home. It comes packed with a hefty 80 megabytes of internal memory for contacts and appointments and supports a variety of e-mail protocols. Also, flip it open to find a full QWERTY keyboard and ample color display. And the 9300 can open, read, and resend just about any kind of attachment, from spreadsheets to PDF files. Already popular in Europe, the 9300 should be available in the U.S. this month.
You are the upstart, the bad boy on the rise. You want it all, and Palm's Treo 650 (about $349) has it: e-mail, a digital camera with video capability, a world phone, and even an MP3 player. Key improvements over its predecessor, the Treo 600, include a brighter screen, a removable battery, and a redesigned keyboard for easier typing.