Lessons from the BlackBerry outage

Companies seem to have to always learn on their own

About a year ago Research in Motion, the folks who bring you the BlackBerry e-mail-on-the-go device, paid more than $US612 million to keep from being shut down by an injunction after being found guilty of patent infringement. A few months before the settlement, the U.S. Justice Department had filed a legal brief in the case asking for a delay in any shutdown to give the government time to develop a database of state and federal BlackBerry users (as many as 300,000 at the time) so that they could be exempted from disruption.

BlackBerry users were spared the shutdown by the settlement, but in mid-April the government users and the rest of the 8 million or so North American BlackBerry users got a little taste of what a

The outage was short -- about 12 hours -- but the impact, at least in the press, was great. As an indication, Google News gets more than 1,600 hits on news articles dealing with BlackBerry + outage -- more than 380 of them include the derogatory term "CrackBerry." There were many stories about the loss that people felt when they were not in touch on a second-by-second basis, mingled with a few stories about the threat of people using BlackBerries while driving.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from this incident. A major one is a lesson that companies seem to have to always learn on their own. It seems like common sense to be as open and forthcoming as possible when you have messed up. But I guess RIM, like retailer TJX with its recent data breach, lacks common sense. It took RIM a long time to fess up that it was poor planning on its part that caused the problem -- specifically an incompletely tested upgrade and faulty failover to a backup system. Many people worry that it is just a cover story and that the real problem is that RIM is growing faster than its systems and processes can support. RIM still does not have any explanation on its Web page of what happened, at least that I could find under support and press releases. If RIM had been quicker to say what happened and provided more detail maybe more people would believe the company.

Another major lesson was forgotten a few minutes after the service was restored. Very few people need to be as connected as they think these days. At least BlackBerries are quiet and, thus, are not as annoying to others as loud cell phone conversations in restaurants and elevators.

I admit to not having a BlackBerry, nor do I keep my cell phone on except in special cases, so it is easier for me to preach. But that might all change when I get my hands on an iPhone.

Disclaimer: The Harvard Divinity School teaches preaching but the above preaching is untutored and represents my opinions, not the university's.

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Scott Bradner

Network World
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