For BlackBerry customers, that fear has become a reality. Since Monday, customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have been experiencing issues with messaging and browsing on their devices, an issue that has now spread to subscribers in the Americas, according to Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphones.
In an update posted on Wednesday, RIM explains the delays in messaging and browsing "were caused by a core switch failure within RIM's infrastructure." The update on the RIM website goes on to say, "Although the system is designed to failover to a back-up switch, the failover did not function as previously tested. As a result, a large backlog of data was generated and we are now working to clear that backlog and restore normal service as quickly as possible."
When an event of this magnitude happens, people want answers.
RIM apologizes for the inconvenience, and says it's working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. The backlash even caused an impromptu press conference on Wednesday. Responding to customer anger over the disruption in service, RIM CTO for Software David Yach said the company is concentrating on getting the service back up: "Our priority is to get service up and running because at the end of the day that's what's going to make our customers happy, is to have their BlackBerries working again."
Yach said RIM engineers believe they identified the initial problem, but won't reveal it until further tests confirm their findings. That's all well and good, but the ramifications of a delay in service this long could be disastrous for a company already competing against the Android and iPhone, two platforms that continue to grow in popularity.
And while an explanation was given for the delays, many can't help but wonder if something more was happening. Remember Bank of America's website woes? Last week the company's website kept experiencing hiccups, with a message on its homepage explaining the online banking site was temporarily unavailable [See BofA's Site Outage: PR Nightmare]. Despite that explanation, many customers and observers wondered if the outage had any connection to hacktivists angry over BofA's announcement about new debit card fees. As a result, BofA's PR team spent more time talking about what hadn't happened than what had.
The PR nightmare BofA experienced is now on BlackBerry's shoulders. There may not be anything nefarious going on, other than a technical error with RIM's infrastructure. But when a failover doesn't function, that opens up the discussion to business continuity issues for customers that rely on the service, especially with the BlackBerry being a very business-centric device.
Also, although Yach's statements were helpful, you do have to question RIM's initial tactic of using a website to keep customers updated. Posting such information with no name, no attribution, no face, is just bad PR. When an event of this magnitude happens, people want answers, and they want to be able to trust in somebody to put their worries to ease. There should be transparency and accountability.
Andy Greenawalt, CEO and founder of Continuity Control, a New Haven, Conn.-based provider of Web-based software for financial institutions, recently spoke about the BofA website outages. "Organizations have to realize they must be hyper-transparent," he says. "The old culture is, 'We're going to figure out what happened and then tell you.' But that's not the way things work anymore."
How much further could RIM have gone in monitoring and updating its system in the event of a catastrophe such as this? It's obvious there's much work the company will have to do in order to repair its infrastructure, as well as its image. Now might not be a bad time to have someone prominent in the company step up and explain the situation in clear, non-cryptic terms. In an age where breaches happen regularly, and hackers look for the next chance to cause mass disruption, companies must be better prepared to reach out to the public and keep them informed.