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4/20/2007
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BlackBerry Dependency Re-Evaluated After RIM Service Outage

Lacking an explanation of what went wrong, customers mull smartphone diversification.

Research In Motion bruised its reputation when a system glitch last week knocked out e-mail service to thousands of customers.

The service interruption, which began on April 17 and carried over to the next morning, lasted about 10 hours, but its long-term effect could be troubling for the BlackBerry manufacturer.

"This was probably the straw that broke the camel's back in regards to diversification for us," says Charles De Sanno, executive director of enterprise infrastructure engineering for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has approximately 5,800 BlackBerry users.

Customers expressed concern not just that RIM's network crashed but with the vendor's slow response in explaining what happened. For nearly two days following the mishap, RIM's public response consisted of a 56-word statement saying merely that the cause was "under review."

"I'm personally disappointed in the way RIM handled this situation," says De Sanno, who's testing Windows Mobile devices from several manufacturers and plans to switch over a significant number of BlackBerry users by year's end.

RIM needs to show that it's making appropriate changes to avoid a repeat performance, says Carmi Levy, an analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. "This wasn't just a slowdown," Levy adds. "This affected the majority of RIM's global user base."

Lacking information on what went wrong, customers were left to assess whether their own servers were part of the problem. "BlackBerry is essentially an outsourced environment," says Paul Hinsberg, senior server engineer for Alameda County, Calif. "Whenever there's an outage, this determination has to go on whether it's us or them."

RIM maintains three network operations centers for its wireless e-mail system: two in Waterloo, Ontario, (one for North America, another supporting customers in Asia and the Pacific) and one in the United Kingdom for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Last week's outage, the company's first significant shutdown since June 2005, almost certainly originated in the data center serving North America.

On April 19, RIM issued a statement saying the outage was caused by "the introduction of a new, non-critical system routine" designed to optimize the system's cache. The company's failover process didn't perform up to expectations, RIM acknowledged.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

RIM has enjoyed explosive growth, with its subscriber base topping 8 million customers in the first quarter of this year. Customers last week wondered if the company has made the necessary infrastructure investments to keep up. In its statement, RIM said it has "definitively ruled out" security or capacity issues as a root cause of the outage.

Yet one competitor points to a potential weak spot in RIM's network architecture. Because all of its North American e-mail and data traffic is routed through one network operations center, RIM has what amounts to a single point of failure, says Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of open source mobile e-mail provider Funambol.

Until now, the BlackBerry's cachet, reliability, and strong user experience have helped RIM fend off less expensive mobile e-mail alternatives based on more open operating systems. Some of that magic, however, evaporated last Tuesday night.

De Sanno calculates the VA can save more than $1 million a year by shifting to Windows Mobile, while "diversifying and securing the environment" in the process. That's a compelling proposition, and one RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie must counter in the weeks ahead.

Digitally altered image, photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

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