RIM Blames Upgrade For ‘Critical’ BlackBerry Outage

A major outage hit BlackBerry users in North America on Monday, cutting off wireless e-mail for everyone from busy executives to political campaign staff on the eve of three U.S. presidential primaries.

The disruption may have been caused by an upgrade to the systems of owner Research In Motion (RIM), its co-CEO Jim Balsillie said on Tuesday.

The popular e-mail service was down for about three hours across North America on Monday afternoon.

“At the core virtually all these things tend to happen on service upgrades,” Balsillie said in an interview with Reuters at the Mobile World Congress, but he added that the company was still working on getting to the root of the problem.

The problem, which RIM described as a “critical severity outage,” once again raised concerns about the stability of the e-mail service 10 months after a widespread crash last April.

RIM said in a later statement that data services experienced delays on late Monday afternoon, around 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, but were restored in the early evening at around 6:30 p.m.

But by about 7:00 p.m. Eastern time some users said a few e-mails were trickling through, while others continued to be without service.

Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, said reliability is a serious concern for companies such as RIM because if problems become routine, they can drive customers away.

[cob:Related_Articles]”It’s a big issue, and it’s a growing issue,” Levy said, adding that huge outages could prove to be “a major Achilles’ heel” for RIM.

RIM’s U.S. shares fell as much as 1.3 percent on the news, after closing up 5.3 percent in regular NASDAQ trade. On the Toronto Stock Exchange, the shares finished the day C$4.73 higher at C$94.62.

RIM notified its clients of the outage in an e-mail, but officials at the Waterloo, Ontario-based company were not immediately available for comment.

“This is an emergency notification regarding the current BlackBerry Infrastructure outage,” RIM support account manager Bryan Simpson said in an e-mail to large clients.

The last big outage in April 2007 provoked an angry backlash from compulsive users, who have dubbed the device “CrackBerry” due to its druglike addictiveness. At the time, Balsillie said such incidents were “very rare” and RIM was taking steps to prevent it from happening again.

RIM’s worldwide subscriber base reached about 12 million people by late last year — mainly executives, politicians, lawyers and other professionals who rely on the BlackBerry to send secure e-mails. Meanwhile, sleeker new models are catching on with students and others outside professional circles.

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, said, “While the outage did confirm our widespread addiction to BlackBerry service, fortunately it did not cause more than a temporary inconvenience.”

Voters go to the polls on Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, the latest battleground in a tight race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination in November’s election.

U.S. mobile phone carrier Verizon Wireless reported that the outage was affecting all customers’ BlackBerry e-mail service in North America. It said Verizon Wireless customers can still make calls on their BlackBerry, however.

Some appeared to enjoy a respite from the device. “It made my life a little bit easier, since I didn’t have to reply,” Liberal Party spokesman Jean-François Del Torchio said from Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

“But when I arrived at my desktop and I saw all the e-mails I received, I was like, ‘Oh, I still need to work,'” Del Torchio told Reuters.

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