How much work can you do on a BlackBerry?

The laptop-free promise of today’s next-gen mobile devices is put to the test. Can the BlackBerry Bold deliver?

Portable yet powerful, the laptop has become the machine of choice for the modern business user. But for anyone with extensive experience pushing the limits of its portability (in coach, on the bus, anywhere power outlets come at a premium), the lure of the laptop may be losing its luster -- especially in light of recent advances in netbooks.

And while the wise foresee ARM-based netbooks running some flavor of Linux as the long-term solution for business users' portable computing fix, the (arguably) foolish among us hunger for even smaller devices. After all, today’s smartphones look more and more like computers, with keyboards, browsers, storage, pointing devices, and even applications.

Not one to steer clear of a challenge or the chance to be labeled "crazy" by colleagues, I decided to spend a month seeing how far I could go toward replacing my laptop with one of the two more popular smartphones on the market, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold) and the iPhone 3G. It seems as if everywhere I go people are constantly immersed in their BlackBerrys and iPhones. Surely, there’s more to them than e-mail and phone calls. I quickly learned the addiction of always-accessible e-mail, but even though the BlackBerry won’t replace my laptop any time soon, I can see the pocket-based revolution coming where a device like it will edge aside a laptop for much of my day. (See my separate report on my month-long experience on the iPhone.)

[ Which mobile device is the best? InfoWorld pits the BlackBerry versus the iPhone 3.0 in its mobile deathmatch. | Dive deep into the next-gen mobile devices in InfoWorld’s PDF special "mobile 2.0" report. ]

E-mail: BlackBerry’s key business benefit
Research in Motion’s premier executive BlackBerry, the BlackBerry 9000 (Bold), offers a full QWERTY keyboard, midsize screen, built-in browser, the ability to run apps, and both 3G and Wi-Fi networking. In other words, there's enough on paper to entice you to ditch your laptop, but not enough in practice to keep you from regretting it.

If anything, the BlackBerry is designed primarily as a messaging device, and it’s amazing how addictive messaging on a BlackBerry can be. Too addicting, in fact -- over the course of the month, I had to develop a certain inner fortitude to consciously stop checking for messages and attend to other concerns, like my family.

Downtime on my train-and-bus commute, where I normally catch up on magazines, was no longer downtime. Neither were rides to and from the airport. Nor many moments standing in line for coffee, groceries, and so on. “Going smartphone” kept me up with everything that was happening at the office and with colleagues, no matter the time zone difference between us.

[ See the BlackBerry Bold in action in InfoWorld’s guided tour. ]

Well, usually. Train tunnels between stations had me riding out five-minute connectivity gaps, thumbs poised on the keyboard itching to reconnect to outside world. And a trip to New York found me without data service from Wall Street to Chelsea, reminding me just how dependent on AT&T -- the Bold’s exclusive U.S. carrier, and one notorious for inadequate coastal coverage -- my always-on connectivity addiction had become.

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