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BlackBerry users eye alternatives

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As countries in the Middle East and elsewhere attempt to control information sent and received on BlackBerry devices, the owners who rely on them struggle to find alternatives.
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates » Udoay Ghosh sat sipping coffee before an early morning flight from Dubai International Airport, looking with affection at his two — yes, two — BlackBerry smart phones laid out in front of him.

As an executive for electronics company G-Hanzs, the Dubai-based businessman travels about 300 days a year and uses the gadgets to keep up with more than 100 e-mails a day. So it’s understandable he’s worried about government threats to ban the service.

"This is my laptop, my office and my home," he said of the devices. "People nowadays don’t wait. In today’s world, time is money, and if you lose time, you lose business."

Like hordes of other on-the-go professionals, Ghosh sees the BlackBerry as an indispensable business tool — a constant companion for those looking to get ahead. But with the United Arab Emirates and India threatening bans on key BlackBerry features over security concerns, users fear their work routines could be sorely crimped and are scrambling for alternatives, at least while on the road.

Many BlackBerry devotees interviewed at airports and offices around the world last week struggled to remember how they ever got by without the devices.

Some, including information technology consultant Penny Ge in Shanghai, said business trips would become harder without easy access to e-mail. Others, including Indian broker Krishnan Viswanathan, are already weighing alternatives such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

BLACKBERRY BLACKOUT?

A list of countries considering BlackBerry bans over security concerns with data routed abroad:

India: The country of almost 1.2 billion people has threatened to block corporate e-mail and messaging services unless Research In Motion Ltd., the Canadian maker of the device, makes data more easily available to its intelligence and law enforcement agencies by Aug. 31. Phone calls and text messaging would not be affected. Next, the government might ask Google Inc. and Skype SA for greater access to encrypted information sent over their e-mail and phone services.

Indonesia: The Southeast Asian country wants RIM to place a server in its country because it fears that e-mails could be intercepted as they pass through RIM’s servers overseas. It is considering banning the service but has no firm plans.

Lebanon: The country says it is reviewing whether BlackBerry service raises any security concerns for the nation.

Saudi Arabia: The kingdom’s telecom regulator had ordered a halt to BlackBerry service across the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s telecommunications regulator says it will allow service to continue in the country for now, citing "positive developments." It is unclear, however, whether the reprieve is permanent.

United Arab Emirates: The Persian Gulf state plans to shut down e-mail, BlackBerry Messenger and Web browsing on BlackBerrys starting Oct. 11. It says it is still in talks with RIM. Phone calls and telephone text messages would not be affected.

Associated Press

Zenprise Inc., a Fremont, Calif., firm that helps companies manage their mobile phones, said many of its multinational customers are considering alternatives but would have to train employees on how to use them. The companies remain in limbo, though, because negotiations are ongoing between governments and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.

"The indecision breeds frustration," said Ahmed Datoo, Zenprise’s vice president of marketing.

Millions of devotees, famously including President Barack Obama, rely on the BlackBerry handsets to tap out quick — if often misspelled and poorly punctuated — e-mails and instant messages to fellow users. Die-hard aficionados use them to catch up on work in taxis and airport transit lounges, and even — to the chagrin of spouses — to squeeze out a few more productive minutes before drifting off to sleep.

In Madrid, Juan Cejudo answered eight e-mails with his BlackBerry while waiting to check in for his flight to Dubai. He cringed at the thought of not being able to use the device.

"Without it I cannot work," said the 40-year-old Spanish executive with a Swiss company that makes bank software.

But work without it they must, if the bans go through.

India is threatening to block BlackBerry corporate e-mail and messaging services unless it wrings out concessions from device maker RIM by the end of this month.

The UAE — home to Dubai, one of the world’s busiest layover stops for long-haul international passengers — has given the Canadian company until October to comply with its demands or face bans on e-mails, messaging and Web services. The crackdown would apply even to passengers making connections at the country’s airports for other destinations.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia has threatened to block the devices’ popular BlackBerry Messenger service, though the kingdom recently said it would allow service to continue, citing "positive developments" in its efforts with RIM. It is unclear whether the issue there has been fully resolved.

All three countries have cited concerns the phones’ security features could be misused by terrorists and criminals, though they have not always made clear what specific concessions they are seeking. Other countries, including Lebanon and Indonesia, are also taking a closer look at the devices. The proposed bans all apply to data services, not phone calls, meaning BlackBerry handsets would still be allowed in the countries.

While free-speech advocates have criticized the crackdowns, a number of BlackBerry users say they understand the governments’ concerns.

"It’s important for things to be traceable," said Brad Kollur, 33, an IT consultant who lives in Rockaway, N.J., and often travels to India on business. "It’s one of those things where you give up certain comforts for the greater good."

RIM has declined to discuss details of its negotiations with regulators. It says it tries to cooperate with countries’ legal and national security needs, and has "a consistent global standard for lawful access requirements that does not include special deals for specific countries."

There are alternatives, of course.

Nokia Corp. is among the manufacturers that sell smart phones with e-mail, Web browsing and other office tools — none of which raises the ire of Mideast and Indian regulators. The iPhone and a number of handsets running Google Inc.’s Android software offer those features, too.

"We would equip our employees with alternative devices if there should be any major change," said Michael Grabicki, a spokesman for German chemical company BASF SE.

These other devices, however, do not rely on the same type of sophisticated encryption that appears to have raised concerns, meaning they also do not offer the same level of security that many businesses find crucial.

 

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