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Saluting thumbs in perpetual motion

ESPN doesn't understand the excitement, and Fox Sports doesn't grasp the inherent danger. The New England Sports Network simply can't appreciate the technique and strategy.

That's why none of those channels carried live coverage of the first-ever @Large BlackBerry Invitational Tournament, held last week. Their mistake. This would've been a ratings bonanza. Who cares about baseball or golf when you could be watching a middle manager surreptitiously typing 60 words-per-minute under the conference table during a plodding PowerPoint presentation?

Nearly 50 entrants vied for the grand prize: a mention in print, and the right to add a line to one's e-mail signature boasting, ''Winner of the 2005 @Large BlackBerry Invitational." Proceeds from the competition went to the American Association for the Prevention of Thumb Tendinitis, a painful affliction that sadly ends the careers of many talented BlackBerry users. (Perhaps you'll donate, as there were no proceeds this year.)Two observations led me to launch the tourney.The first was that people with hand-held e-mail devices tend to get obsessed with responsiveness. (I use the term BlackBerry to encompass devices like the PalmOne Treo and the T-Mobile Sidekick, which I'm sure infuriates the legal department at Research In Motion, the Canadian company that makes BlackBerrys.) They volley back answers mere milliseconds after the sender has asked the question.The second observation was that as people have been getting more comfortable with their devices, responses have been getting longer. Spelling and punctuation have been improving. Some users are so facile that they remove the automatically appended apology ''Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld" from the bottom of their messages, which some feel serves as a cover for sloppy typing and fragmented replies. (It also suggests that one may be enjoying the afternoon on a friend's sailboat, rather than imprisoned in a cubicle.)''It definitely seems like people are getting a lot more adept at typing away at these little keyboards," says Greg Shirai, vice president of product marketing for PalmOne, which a has sold hand-held devices with Lilliputian keys since 2002. ''And hopefully we as phone manufacturers are doing a better job with design, learning from previous keyboards, so people are more inclined to type out longer messages."

The rules were simple: Anyone with a hand-held e-mail device of any kind was invited to enter. Competitors would respond to four messages sent over a 24-hour period. I advised the competitors not to respond to the messages if they were in a situation where e-mailing be dangerous (for instance, while driving, or engaged in a deep emotional discussion with a spouse.) Points were awarded based on speed, thoroughness, accuracy of spelling and punctuation, and cleverness.

For the preliminary round, last Tuesday evening, I asked entrants to indicate that they agreed to the rules, let me know where they were, and what was for dinner.

One of only three female contestants dropped out at this point. ''I believe I will have to bow out, as I have a fair amount of meetings at work tomorrow," replied Kate Shepherd. But what are meetings for, Kate, if not twiddling with the little scroll wheel on the side of your BlackBerry?

Dan Kennedy, a product development manager at 170 Systems in Bedford, replied that he was at a Lowell Spinners baseball game, having a hot dog. (The following day, Kennedy took his kids to Fenway. But I am not sure his boss knew where he was, so let's keep that our little secret.)

Maria Cirino, senior vice president at VeriSign, chided me for my stuffy rules. ''What fun would it be if there wasn't a bit of risk in bberry messaging?" she asked. ''I gave up my 5 speed car for an automatic because it became a bit too tough to juggle the cellphone, the bberry and the stick shift!"

The trash started early. ''I am looking forward to smoking the competition!" wrote Kristen Cleveland, an IT manager at Aviva Life Insurance in North Quincy.

Round One took place just after 9 a.m. on Wednesday. I asked about the items on competitors' ''to do" lists for the day, how their commute was, and about their favorite e-mail shorthand.

Abdul Sawan, a technical manager who works for Research In Motion, was the first to reply, less than two minutes after my message went out.

I awarded Jim Baron two points for safety. While driving from Waltham to his office in Framingham, Baron received my message ''just before the Framingham rest area, which allowed me to pull over to type this," he wrote.

Donald Slate, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology who lives in Newton, got two points for creative abbreviation: ''Tme 4 me 2 gt my caff." The rest of his three-paragraph reply was letter-perfect.

Round Two asked about competitors' rules of BlackBerry etiquette, and whether they were in the habit of e-mailing while driving.

John Brodin, a system architect at Pyxis Mobile in Waltham, which develops software for BlackBerrys, checked in first. But Sawan was just a hair behind him. ''I e-mail and drive too frequently," Brodin wrote. ''I have a long ride and traffic isn't moving anyway. I can type one-handed and drive with the other."

''We def have berry banned meetings" at netNumina Solutions, wrote Langdon White, the director of engineering at the Cambridge company. ''We all get a little itchy during those." Michael Tobin of GlassHouse Technologies reported having ''seen others read e-mail one-handed in the men's room." Others. Not him, of course.

Round Three took place at 6:21.

White's reply came in first. ''I have been interviewing and in mtgs all day," he wrote. (One thing I'd asked about was whether there were any extenuating circumstances that may have affected the competitors' performance.) ''Plus my battery died."

Cleveland received the Round Three message of the competition while on a dinner date. That counts as an extenuating circumstance, I suppose, and her reply arrived in the middle of the pack. But she got two points for hitting on a fellow BlackBerry user.

''I can honestly say that he and I met in an elevator after he got on with a BlackBerry in hand," she wrote. ''I had mine in hand, and commented on how cute it was that he had an older model. He complained that he needed the newer model but his employer wouldn't pay for it. And thus began a romance."Cleveland placed fifth in the final point tally, earning more points for wittiness and message length than speed. Kennedy, the baseball fan, was in fourth place, and White in third. Brodin was just one point out of first place, and his fellow employees at Pyxis (three participated, including the CEO) did the best as a team.The lone Research In Motion employee who entered, Abdul Sawan, represented his company honorably, finishing in first place. Sawan, reached on the road in the Netherlands, told me that he gets lots of practice, sending far more messages from his BlackBerry than from his PC. (An average of 300 a day, he said.)

In the wake of this first-ever tournament, there's plenty of good news: No one was fired or demoted for participating in the competition, and no traffic accidents were caused by participants, so far as I know. I have not yet been sued by Research In Motion for misuse of their trademark. Talks are underway to hold next year's tournament at Gillette Stadium, and we're very close to landing a major sponsorship from the maker of some of the snazziest leather belt holsters on the market.ESPN will come crawling. I'm sure of it.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at

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