A Black Eye For The BlackBerry?

Monday’s BlackBerry e-mail outage surely angered more than a few of Research in Motion’s 12.5 million users, coming as it did during peak workday hours. Despite the latest incident, RIM’s enterprise customers seem content to remain with the service, experts say.

Granted, the scope of the outage proved smaller than with previous problems last year. Few or no messages and data files were lost in the three-hour interruption, industry watchers said.

But a more likely reason for RIM’s continued support is that the fan base of the so-called “CrackBerry” has proven itself incredibly devoted.

[cob:Related_Articles]This week’s service drop proved brief compared to the incident in April, 2007, which left the provider’s then-8 million users without e-mail for nearly 14 hours.

Yet even that larger incident didn’t cause a drop in users, nor did smaller outages some users reported in autumn.

That’s because RIM’s enterprise customers are a very loyal group, Bill Hughes, senior analyst at In-Stat, told InternetNews.com.

For example, Hughes cited the support users gave RIM during the vendor’s long-running patent dispute several years earlier. At one point, RIM declared it would shut down the service unilaterally if it didn’t win in the courts.

“There’s a situation where users should have been thinking ‘I need a backup plan’ in case this happens, and millions should have been investigating alternatives as they could have faced service shutoff without warning,” he said. “But they didn’t.”

“They hung in there and didn’t jump ship,” he said.

However, Hughes acknowledges that today, “most forward-thinking IT managers should be likely thinking of alternative solutions, just in case.”

Perhaps the only real alternative is leaving the BlackBerry for another type of device and provider.

But the practicality of adopting an enterprise-wide backup in case of a RIM failure isn’t a viable option for many, said Carmi Levy, senior vice-president of strategic consulting at AR Communications.

“Think of the cost of the device, another service subscription, the application work and integration work,” Levy said. “That’s a pretty steep price to pay to have a backup system for when and if RIM service takes a dip. It’s like using a jackhammer to nail a picture on the wall.”

He did concede, however, that RIM customers may reach a breaking point should the company continue to suffer sporadic service quality problems — particularly if they are protracted.

“The more glitches and frustration could lead to a gradual erosion in the market base and the value proposition could be impacted,” he said. “RIM is known as a robust, high-performing e-mail service, but at the same time, reliability is a huge factor.”

[cob:Pull_Quote]RIM said Monday’s interruption was due to an internal data routing system problem within the BlackBerry infrastructure, which had recently undergone a routine upgrade. In a brief public statement, RIM said the upgrade had been part of an ongoing effort to increase overall capacity.

Additionally, service problem investigations typically take several days or longer, the vendor said.

“RIM continuously increases the capacity of its infrastructure in advance of longer term demand,” it said in the statement. “Similar upgrades have been successfully implemented in the past, but there appears to have been a problem with this specific upgrade that caused the intermittent service delays. Once the problem was identified and isolated, RIM was able to quickly restore service levels.”

What seemed more worrisome to some industry watchers was RIM’s delay in acknowledging the service hiccup. While service returned by early Monday evening, it took the wireless e-mail provider until late the next day to issue a statement.

That lag in reporting might cause more consternation among customers than the actual service failure, some analysts said.

Yet there could be several valid reasons why RIM isn’t quick to jump on the press box after an incident.

“In all fairness, they might not have known what the problem was for a while,” Hughes said. “You don’t want to give the wrong reason and you don’t want to give out misinformation. Several factors could have caused the issue.”

Levy said he believes RIM could have been more upfront about updating customers when an incident occurs.

“Yes, they’re a dominant player and they’d rather err on the conservative side since they’re in a competitive industry,” Levy told InternetNews.com. “But a little more information about what happened earlier would be good.”

Still, sometimes a technical issue is never solved and so an answer can’t be given. Hughes alluded to the Microsoft Xbox “red ring of death” issue that plagued about one third of the gaming devices on initial shipment.

“To this day, they’re not sure what caused these boxes to just freeze up and die and they might very well never know,” he said.

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