News

BlackBerry outage illustrates how critical devices are

Sarah Jane Tribble
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - After a massive outage of BlackBerry mobile devices across the globe Wednesday prevented millions from checking the e-mail on the go, workers and technology junkies faced an unsettling truth.

"This outage was more than just a little inconvenient. This was on par with (saying) my computer was down or my phone was down," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "People couldn't work the way they were accustomed to working."

Research In Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, provided few answers Wednesday and did not return repeated calls or e-mails. The company released a short statement in the morning saying that the service interruption affected users in North America. It did not say when the outage occurred, how long it lasted or exactly how many were affected.

But clearly, pain was felt worldwide. Analysts estimated that up to 80 percent of BlackBerry's 8 million users were affected and complaints of business disruption rang out from London, mainland China, New York and here on the West Coast.

Newly minted San Jose Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio recalled during lunch Wednesday that he struggled to check e-mail the night before, trying at least once to turn the phone on and off.

"You're wondering what's wrong, asking yourself, `Did I drop it?'" Oliverio said. He discovered the e-mail wasn't working at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday - long after most people's workday has ended.

"BlackBerry users tend to be neurotic," he said, adding that he likes to be "responsive" to people. "Part of the beauty of the BlackBerry is it provides you the knowledge of knowing."

The outage began shortly after 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday and was fixed by the time many workers hit the office on the West Coast Wednesday morning, said Mark Siegel, spokesman for the wireless divisions at AT&T, which owns Cingular Wireless, the largest seller of BlackBerries in the world.

"We learned from RIM that a little after 6 Eastern time this morning they had identified and addressed the problems that caused this outage and began to restore service," Siegel said. It took hours for full service to be restored because a backlog of e-mails choked the system.

RIM, whose technology synchronizes the sending and receiving of e-mail between a mobile device and a desktop server, depends on carriers to distribute products and manage customer relationships. RIM's trademark servers are often installed in corporations to quickly relay e-mail from a network operating center that RIM runs.

Analysts speculated Wednesday that the outage was caused by some massive failure at the network operating center.

The outage "underscores how reliant we have become on technology and particularly technology like wireless that lets us do anything, from anywhere, at any time," Cingular's Siegel said. "Whether it's making a call or something like text messaging, when that capability is disrupted you realize what an important role it plays in your life."

A Jupiter Research poll from February reveals that more than half of business travelers need access to the Internet for e-mail, to check their calendars and to get work files at least three times a day. And 36 percent of business travelers use handheld devices such as BlackBerries.

But soon, it won't be just business travelers complaining when there's an outage. The sales of so-called smart-phones that enable easy access to e-mail are beginning to reach beyond the business traveler. A recent Gartner research firm report predicted that sales of smart-phones are expected to nearly double this year to 122 million worldwide, compared with 74 million in 2006.

"We are all trying to stay communicating in the connected world," said Shiv Bakhshi, a mobile analyst with global research firm IDC. "It's becoming increasingly important because it's a network effect. More and more people are getting a network account not only for business but for social reasons as well."

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San Jose Mercury News staff writer Kate Folmar contributed to this report.

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