Surprise Hits: BlackBerry -- the phone nobody knew they couldn't live without

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the executives of Waterloo, Ontario–based Research In Motion (RIMM) have been blushing for a decade. Since the company first released its BlackBerry handheld device in 1999, it has competed against a growing army of handset developers, including Motorola (MOT), Nokia (NOK), Palm (PALM), Google (GOOG), and Apple (AAPL), that all want to create smartphones that mimic the BlackBerry.

It wasn't always like this. When RIM's electronic organizer and e-mail device first came on the market, no one knew why they needed one -- but everyone quickly realized they couldn't do without one. While most business types who needed to be in constant touch already had two-way pagers, the BlackBerry allowed them to be more efficient: to answer their e-mails while getting lunch, waiting for a flight, or going to the restroom. It was also easier than lugging around a laptop.