BlackBerry silence leaves users seething

The mobile-phone industry is a brutal business. There may be gold in them thar hills, but it can be painful to extract. Witness the howls of rage from tens of millions of BlackBerry customers around the world who were cut off from services like BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), a popular chat service, and email for days this week.

Ironically, it’s the very features that have made BlackBerry a worldwide success that are causing the problems.

Unlike other smart phone makers, Research In Motion (RIM, which owns the brand) diverts all internet and email data from its devices via its own infrastructure.

When it introduced this architecture more than a decade ago, it was a stroke of brilliance.

It enabled BlackBerrys to offer previously unheard-of security in communication and cheaper internet access by compressing and optimising the data for each device.

These features made the brand a huge hit with both the business community, which loved the security, and the mass market, which became addicted to cheap mobile bandwidth.

Such is the loyalty they inspire that the devices have earned the nickname ‘crackberrys’. South Africans are particularly besotted with the brand and its R69 as-much-as-you-can-eat bandwidth model, and South Africa has become one of RIM’s biggest markets.

However, RIM’s strategy has one fatal weakness: it makes the company’s own infrastructure a single point of failure. One major glitch at one of RIM’s data centres and millions are unable to get their hourly fix of email and instant messaging.

That’s exactly what appears to have happened this week at its data centre in Slough, England, which serves Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa — “appears” because RIM has been vague and uncommunicative on the subject.

It even made the cardinal error of declaring the service fixed after the first day of disruptions, only to have the glitch re-emerge and spread to North and South America.

In addition, the disaster seems to be the result of wilful under-investment by the company. A former RIM employee told the Guardian that the company had been neglecting its infrastructure for years, in spite of repeated warnings.

The debacle couldn’t have come at a worse time for RIM, which is already fighting a rear-guard action in its original core market, the United States.

Its market share has been plunging at a time when Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone are growing by double digits.

The company has taken solace in its strong position in emerging markets, but this week’s outage has made many existing and potential customers reconsider the brand.

But RIM’s biggest failure has not been technical, it has been in the public relations field.

Its uncommunicative stance has fuelled rage on social networks around the world, with millions of stranded customers, including celebrities, venting their spleen in public.

A joke circulating on Twitter captures the mood: “What did the one BBM user say to the other BBM user? Nothing.”

RIM has since opened up somewhat and has begun admitting the scale and cause of the problems. Unfortunately, the global outpouring of bile has already done its worst.

RIM has also promised to reconsider its current architecture to ensure this doesn’t happen again. One wonders if its customers are listening.

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