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Summary:

What started as a brief message interruption for BlackBerry users in Europe has now become a worldwide problem that has left millions of people unable to get service — and highlights the leadership problems at the top of Research in Motion.

Mike Lazaridis walks out of BBC interview

When a few of BlackBerry’s European users started losing service earlier this week it was irritating for those affected, but the company was confident that things would be back to normal almost straight away. In the space of just a few days, however, the blackout has done precisely the opposite — and now that it has spread to millions of users around the world, it has become impossible for Research in Motion’s top executives to ignore.

Yesterday the Canadian company trotted out CTO David Yach to talk to the media. He assured everyone that the problem had been identified, that “engineers are working around the clock” to fix it, and that while messages might be delayed, none of them were lost.

“We understand the frustrations our customers are experiencing through the delays with the messaging and browsing…
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize unreservedly to all those people affected by this situation. We’re taking this situation extremely seriously and we’re doing everything we can to restore normal operation of our service.”

It’s something, at least. But is it enough? It’s not clear how long the problems will take to clear completely, but perhaps the damage has already been done.

This blackout is, obviously, an entirely different sort of problem to the company’s recent struggles with the Playbook tablet, or coming under fire for the way its messaging service was used in this summer’s London riots. But the company’s inability to deal with a glaring error is exposing some of its failings in the most brutal way possible.

For a start, this problem seems to be entirely of its own making. While the company is not immune to security problems, it says the original problem started not with a hack but with a failed server in Britain. That initial flaw was rapidly compounded when backup systems failed as well, pushing the impact of the glitch out to users in the Middle East, Africa and India. But things didn’t stop there, and now the problem is of a different order: the backlog of email that users have been trying to send during service disruptions have led to a cascade of blockages in America and Asia. It’s the domino effect writ large and exposes what must surely be some bad planning at the core of the business.

Secondly, its assurances mean little. Yes, as Yach says, its “engineers are working around the clock to fix the problem”. But so they should be: when your products are unable to perform their core function, you’d better treat your business as if it’s just had a heart attack. In the meantime, the impact is getting more serious day by day: whatever the engineers are doing, it isn’t working.

Third, the damage to the company’s relationship with customers is incalculable. Businesses reliant on the BlackBerry — the core users who propelled it to success — will be counting the cost of lost productivity. And its other big base, youngsters addicted to its messaging service, are having their loyalties tested. What is a phone without the ability to communicate? Why stick with a device that can’t perform the basic function you bought it for?

Mike Lazaridis walks out of BBC interviewBut over and above all of this, I think the biggest problem is in the company’s response to this crisis. The slow trickle of information from the business has been disappointing, but it’s only because there seems to have been a real leadership gap over how to handle the affair.

Sure, executives have started going on the record to make their apologies, including Yach, CIO Robin Bienfait and UK boss Stephen Bates. But the really big bosses have yet to make an appearance — despite the fact that RIM has not one but two chief executives.

Where are Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis? Why can’t at least one of them take command of this issue? It’s all very well appearing in public to launch a product, and when the wind is in your sails… but when your already-frazzled users are denied service, their fears are something that need to be dealt with at the very top. It would be bad enough if there were one CEO who had gone missing — but the bigger this problem gets, the more the inability of either man to take it on seems like willful neglect.

Sure, crisis management is tough. You don’t always want leadership to be associated with a problem that was caused further down the chain. But if RIM can’t find a way to get either of its top executives to spare subscribers a moment, what message are they sending?

Updated: Shortly after posting, Lazaridis actually issued a video apology in which he says the company let down users but can’t give a promise of when the outages will be resolved. It’s better than some corporate apologies… but is it enough?

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  1. Their only remaining USP was messaging, now they seem to be faltering there as well. I think this whole incident is a death knell. I personally bought the new Bold 9900 for the messaging and audio quality, but now I realize that the instrument is nothing without the service to back it. What a lemon. I am down by $700 which I could have invested in an iPad or a galaxy S2 or better yet the iPhone 4s. Shame on you RIM, shame on you.

    1. Shame on you spending out $700 on a device that is vastly inferior to the iPhone.

  2. Service is back up at my Canadian location Thursday morning early.

  3. Best thing would be for Google to buy RIM. Google got the infrastructure experience, serving millions of search requests without fail. Google will then also get their hands on some pretty good patents and what is probably still the best messaging system out there. IF they do this and extend BBM and RIM’s push mail to all Android devices, they will be serious competition to iPhone.
    Come on Google, BUY them!!

    1. Who wants to buy a failed company?

    2. Something tells me your solution is for Google to buy everything. Every OEM has already built their features around RIM’s patents. To buy a company whose stock price is continually falling would be eternally stupid. RIM, at this point, is worth more as an independant company than the sum of its parts.

      1. @Fred & @motionblurred, it is not only about buying a failed company, it is about buying the patents held by the company. You will also make it easier for corporate customers to migrate to Android while still keeping the corporate’s investment in BES viable.

    3. The patent issue is exactly why investors want to split the company in three. They know that nobody needs outdated technology, a now reduced competitive advantage in services, and only need the IP.

      Alas, buy RIM sounds as though RIM has anything interest. Even the RIM IP may not be effective in future platforms.

  4. Oh, please. In the long run, the features and functions of Android/iOS will permanently overtake RIM. However, the “I trusted RIM, and they’ve let me down with this service interruption”…is beyond lame. I suspect that their uptime over *decades* has been well above 99%. Google, Hotmail, Skype, etc. have all occasionally had them. So will iCloud.

    1. I agree that it’s crazy to suggest that other people’s infrastructure has much better uptime than RIM’s overall — but for business customers particularly, a five minute outage every so often has a vastly different impact to a seemingly intractable three or four day problem.

      1. The issue is that by reducing trust in the only competitive advantage that RIM offers, users will consider their next purchase with that in mind.

    2. “So will iCloud.” Yes, but even if iCloud goes 100% belly up, you will continue to receive your corporate emil on your iPhone/iPad from your company’s Exchange servers, you will still be able to browse the web, get your personal Gmail, etc. etc.

      The Blackberry failure is a design failure. I don’t see how centralization makes their email any more secure — it just introduces a single point of failure.

      1. It makes it more secure from a firewall standpoint. For BES integration you only need to open port 3101 and outbound-initiated connection. With iPhone/iPad you need 443 open both ways. Even though 443 with active sync is encrypted, a lot of auditors hate to see it open. I agree with you, this is design flaw. Sometimes too much centralization isn’t a good thing when you have 75 million users on the line.

    3. *Decades* means nothing. Smartphone growth is at a rapid pace, not remaining flat. RIM’s profits and stock value are continually decreasing. This does not paint a good picture.

      Even if iCloud suffered outages, Apple has $75 billion in the bank (and growing) to fix the issue. They can buy anything they want.

      1. My point is, this is not Apple vs. RIM but rather that anyone who thinks that any popular Cloud offering will *never* go down will be eventually be mistaken.

  5. The cause of this blackout should blow peoples’ minds. The failure of a single switch and of backup systems to function properly are severe flaws in their system. RIM’s systems introduce an additional and unnecessary point of failure.

  6. OK, so first you complain that neither of the “big bosses” have come out to apologize, then one of them does, and you’re still not happy?

    Incredible. What more do you want? I guess it’s true that complainers will complain no matter what and will never be happy.

    Btw, only the consumer side BIS was affected by the outage. Corporate businesses, government agencies and universities running their own BES servers were not affected. I think you slightly overstate the impact that the outage had on businesses. Although, those running BES Express to tie in BIS users were affected.

  7. I like blackberry but I think Apple have just pulled ahead and really are outperforming them. I have to say I much prefer an apple to a blackberry. Also you never have any connection, network or service problems.

    1. Apple with Siri demonstrates why RIM will never catch up, but Google has voice search as well! This is a two horse race at the moment, and everybody is looking for footing. Execution matters.

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