Frédéric Court, a venture capitalist based in London who says he has been tapping out email on a BlackBerry “forever”, has just had a wake-up call.
On Monday, the device that has been his constant companion stopped delivering new messages, along with millions of its brethren in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Latin America. By the middle of the week, as he headed to the US on business, a network outage that was eventually to affect about half of BlackBerry users had spread to North America as well.
His days became a series of the encounters that have come to typify a modern, digitally powered business life – with a banker who turned up to a meeting with a pocketful of mobile devices, two of them BlackBerrys, or the fellow board member who was driven to distraction as he struggled to complete a deal without his mobile email lifeline.
“I’m going to drop the BlackBerry and focus on the iPhone – it will save a bit of money and probably be more efficient,” Mr Court says. The applications available on his second handset had already made the touchscreen iPhone a more useful device, and the interruption to the email that is the lifeblood of business has been the final straw. But what of losing the handy hard keyboard that BlackBerry users swear by? “I will force myself to write shorter emails – but it will be a good thing.”
An absence that was once a mild irritation for a minority is now a big inconvenience for tens of millions. In 2007, when a widespread network problem first left the thumbs of BlackBerry addicts twitching redundantly, only about 8m used the service. That number has since ballooned to 70m, and mobile email and messaging have been transformed from a handy way to keep in touch into both a core tool of business life and a cherished aid to social existence.
This week’s network failure, the worst in the BlackBerry’s 12-year history, has come at a bad time for Research In Motion, the Canadian company behind the service. Already losing ground to more versatile handsets from Apple and companies using Google’s smartphone software, it has fumbled the transition to touchscreen devices of its own that were meant to put it back on the map.
With its shares down by two-thirds since early this year, rebel shareholders have begun to call for the heads of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, its founders and co-chief executives. It is time, say the BlackBerry’s critics and competitors, for its users to think about moving on.
“Thousands of companies this week will have instructed their IT directors to come up with alternatives,” says Richard Levick, a businessman in Washington, who had already relaxed the BlackBerry-only policy for his 60-person company out of dissatisfaction with the service. Expressing the frustration felt by many, he adds: “It’s clear they don’t have a crisis plan. They don’t communicate with their end-users. They are the anti-Apple.”
Yet despite the public displays of anger, the reign of the BlackBerry is far from over. The familiar compact keyboard still has a dedicated following among the elite of the business, financial and political worlds.
And it has found millions of new fans: among the youth of Europe, drawn by a free messaging service that has given it the unlikely status of a cool accessory; the dissidents of the Middle East, reassured by encrypted communications that may give them some protection from prying official eyes; and a new army of devotees in countries such as India and Brazil, who have taken it up with the same fervour that was seen previously in the developed world.
“I have all kinds of different phones with big screens,” says Mike McNamara, chief information officer at Tesco, the UK supermarket group. “But when I travel, I leave them all at home and take the BlackBerry because it will give me the longest battery life.”
Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor, adds: “If your life really depends on email, they still have the best product.”
He should know. After leading a 2007 recapitalisation of Palm, a fading handset maker, Mr McNamee tried to outdo the BlackBerry with a device that sported a more elegant, slide-out keyboard – only to find that the sleek Palm Pre was no match for the utilitarian functionality of the BlackBerry.
With control of the hardware, software and service behind the BlackBerry, RIM has a deeper involvement in the overall experience of its customers than other smartphone makers. “The difference is that they take responsibility for the whole thing,” Mr McNamee says. “That’s a staggering advantage.”
Yet some of these very advantages may now be working against it. The close association of its brand with the overall service leaves it vulnerable when something goes wrong. That should serve as a warning for other smartphone makers as they start to move into the service business themselves to try to set their devices apart – not least Apple, which this week launched its iCloud, designed to allow music, pictures and other content to move more easily between devices.
For RIM, the network outage looks to be the result of a classic mix of technological complacency, poor disaster planning and a failure to grasp the basic principles of crisis management, beginning with the need for quick and clear communication by senior executives.
Problems began with the failure of a switch in Slough, to the west of London, at about 11am local time on Monday. One of three main “hearts” that pump emails through the global BlackBerry network, the switch was what a senior engineer at a rival global network describes as the networking equivalent of a nuclear power plant – something that should have been designed never to fail.
Worse, a back-up plan that involved moving traffic to a reserve switch did not work, despite what the company claimed had been adequate testing. Left unclear is whether RIM’s contingency planning failed it or whether, as some experts suggest, it had simply neglected to maintain enough reserve capacity as its network expanded.
For followers of the company, who have now seen network outages for five consecutive years, this has been hard to stomach. “Every time, it has been traced to a lack of thorough disaster planning,” says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, an information technology research firm. Repeated promises to do better have failed to improve things and long-standing customers are now losing patience with these repeated slips, he adds.
This week, with undelivered messages backing up, things went from bad to worse as messages sent from the US and elsewhere to Europe could not get through and bounced back, causing a blockage further back in the pipeline that eventually overflowed into other local markets. By Wednesday, American BlackBerry users, who had been given no warning, found the problem washing up on their shores.
Mr Lazaridis, who is the technical brains behind its network, later described the domino-like collapse as a “cascade” that washed through the system. It was not until Thursday that the company managed to stabilise the network and flush out all the old messages – or that its co-chief executives broke their personal silence and apologised to customers.
A common way to prevent this kind of contagion spreading through global networks is to compartmentalise the traffic flows, according to experts. “Clearly, RIM had not done that,” says Srinivasan Keshav, a professor of computer networking at the University of Waterloo, an institution based in the same Ontario city as the company’s headquarters and the place where many of its engineers trained.
The company called in consultants 18 months ago to look into how to spread its traffic more evenly, according to one person familiar with its deliberations. But that led nowhere.
In the absence of any clear description by the company of the causes of the latest problem, critics question whether it is in a position to set things right. “They haven’t really explained what happened or how this will be precluded from happening again,” says Richard Doherty at Envisioneering, a US tech research firm.
Some long-standing BlackBerry customers had already opened their corporate networks to the new generation of smartphones and tablets pioneered by Apple – the sort of gadgets that start as “executive jewellery” for senior staff but quickly spread as other workers demand more choice as well, says Ahmed Datoo of Zenprise, a Californian company that maintains networks of devices for companies.
The network problems are likely to cause an acceleration of this trend. A JPMorgan Chase official describes the US bank as “not happy about the recent outage”. UBS of Switzerland says it already offers staff the choice of using iPhones and will extend that to other devices “as users demand”.
The BlackBerry may not yet be in danger of losing its status among hardcore emailers. But for an increasing number of mobile workers, it will no longer be the only fruit.
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