Beyond BlackBerry, high-tech execs shun gadgets

NEW YORK Fri May 22, 2009 4:13pm EDT

A man checks his Blackberry in Olathe, Kansas February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

A man checks his Blackberry in Olathe, Kansas February 25, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Dave Kaup

NEW YORK (Reuters) - You'd think the leaders of the world's biggest and coolest tech companies would be total gadget freaks, 'tricorder'-carrying whiz kids sporting the latest doodads months before the masses.

Think again.

Top brass and chief thinkers from companies from Web upstart Twitter to "Big Blue" IBM told the Reuters Global Technology Summit that, when not developing "the next big thing," they turn to hobbies similar to that of non-geeks.

They read books and go fishing. Very un-Star Trek, eh?

"I'm not actually a gadget freak. And I'm not a computer freak. I'm a physicist," said Eli Harari, chief executive of SanDisk Inc (SNDK.O), which makes those ubiquitous fingernail-sized digital memory cards and USB thumb drives.

"I love technology. But I don't like gadgets. I rarely use my notebook PC -- and I type with two fingers," he said.

Popular folklore and network TV, fuel a belief in a high-tech world of anti-social genius's like Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" or Jack Bauer of Fox's hit show "24", who have critical data at their fingertips via powerful gadgets.

But most of the summit guests admitted that the only super device they wield is a mobile phone -- Research in Motion's RIM.TO Blackberry or Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) iPhone -- with most saying they would suffer without them.

"I like to walk and wander around a lot, and I say 'iPhone where am I', and it says 'you are right here,' three miles away from my house," said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who added that he would drive back home to get it if he forgot it.

BOOKS OR KINDLES?

Technology executives said their busy lifestyles don't leave much time for dabbling with sophisticated devices that do not pertain to building their own businesses.

"I like to get away from electronics," said John Chen, CEO of business software provider of Sybase (S.N). "I have found that very constantly grinding (is) quite stressful."

Like many of his peers, Chen seeks respite in the printed word. But two camps are evolving, now that Amazon.com Inc's (AMZN.O) Kindle digital reader has captured the fancy of executives bored with sitting around airports.

"This morning I got on a plane to come down here," Corning Inc (GLW.N) Chief Financial Officer Jim Flaws said. "I had checked to make sure it downloads the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I can read both of them on my BlackBerry, but it's a little easier to read on your Kindle, which is...bigger."

Venture capitalist Tim Draper, a man accustomed to writing million-dollar checks, said he was itching to buy a Kindle, but was too frugal to do it yet.

"I have a little bit of Kindle envy," he said. "I have a Sony (6758.T) Reader, and I have a whole bunch of books on it. I'm so cheap, I want to be sure I've read all of those books before I buy a Kindle."

Sybase's Chen, a self-described old-fashioned guy, says he will pass on Kindle. "If I get on a plane for a long ride, I read a book. I can't stand Kindle. It's not an Amazon issue -- I like the feel of a book."

The aversion to toting gadgets doesn't mean that tech leaders aren't wowed by their electronic abilities. Take, for example, one new take on an activity thousands of years old.

"The last thing I bought was a fish finder -- it's amazing technology," Ralph de la Vega, AT&T Inc's mobile chief, said of a device made by satellite navigation tool maker Garmin Ltd (GRMN.O). "I don't know how people used to fish before -- you had to have a lot of stored knowledge."

"You can go to a place, scout it out and say 'I think there's fish over there!' Its such a better thing to do than just casting a fly, and you don't know where the fish are."

He pulls out his other favorite device -- an iPhone -- to show off a snapshot of his prized catch, a Bass.

It may be chips and megabytes that make life as a tech executive exciting, but is there anything SanDisk's Harari can't live without?

"I can't live without my wife," he said.

(Reporting by Franklin Paul, editing by Tiffany Wu, Leslie Gevirtz)

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