Blackberry: Making a crisis into a drama

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RIM's slow public response over the Great Blackberry Outage is an object lesson in brand implosion

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13 October 2011 | 0

"Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!" as John Betjeman wrote. After this week its likely this sentiment will be endorsed by Blackberry users, cut off by an outage at the Berkshire burrough’s data centre. No longer famous for inspiring billious poetry and The Office, Slough now holds the dubious honour of being the epicentre of an almost global telecommunications meltdown. That Research in Motion’s (RIM) customers across Europe, India, China, Africa, US, Canada and Latin America have had to go without e-mail, instant messaging and Internet browsing for three whole days is tantamount to… well… it’s hard to make a comparison to anything, really – this is bungling on a revolutionary scale in the Digital World.

What exactly went wrong at Slough is uncertain, however news service IDG reported that on Monday a flaw in RIM’s architecture meant that when a "core switch failure" in the data centre failed and the back-up didn’t activate, a massive data backlog of messages was created, leading to an almost global service outage. A few pieces of equipment, one location. No wonder people are annoyed.

Maddening

Possibly the best place to gauge the level of outrage, microblogging website Twitter was full of chatter, from the bitter to the satirical. Using the #dearblackberry hash tag, users shared their pain, pangs and plans for escape; some of the best being "I am learning to do without you. It’s not as bad as I thought. Regards, Recovering Addict" and "What did the Blackberry user say to the other? Nothing."

If the outage itself was enough to incense the twitterati, equally maddening was RIM’s prosaic response to the crisis verged on an exercise in brand implosion. For a company already under pressure in the smartphone space that sells itself on the effective linking of hardware to secure e-mail and messaging, any kind of service interruption is disastrous. It wasn’t until Wednesday, day three of the crisis, that official statements and not anodyne status updates began to be released. The only statement received in this office on behalf of RIM came from Vodafone, which could only reiterate that the problem was being worked on. At 6am this morning a three-line post on the Blackberry website said services were operating "with significant improvement". According to RIM corporate information officer Robin Bienfait on Wednesday: "We understand why this happened, and we are working to restore normal service levels in all markets as quickly as we can."

The good news, such as it is, according to chief technical officer David Yach there was no evidence of a hack. This will come as some relief to observers tracking attempts by governments in India and Iran to open up Blackberry services for surveillance purposes.

Unconfirmed

This morning a clip posted by RIM featuring company president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis admitted "we’ve let many of you down," that the company was "working hard to stabilise the system", and that he could not confirm when full service would continue but that RIM would be issuing regular updates through its website and social media channels. Basically, the company will be doing what it should have been since Monday.

Lazaridis’ mea culpa will only be of interest after full service has been restored and RIM decides what compensation its customers deserve. So far the mood on social media has largely been one of relief, although forgiveness is some way off. As Betjeman wrote: "The Earth exhales", but it’s far from relaxing.

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