Last week was the second time RIM put its customers at risk. This time, however, these customers found themselves disconnected without explanation for an extended period of time.
The lack of notification, the lack of accountability, and the lack of any real evidence the core problems have been addressed make RIM unacceptable as a large enterprise, or government, service provider.
Smartphones have largely replaced pagers as the way a large cross-section of professionals -- including doctors, police, lawyers, politicians, executives and care providers -- manage their day, deal with changing events, and stay in touch. In effect, they are as important to these people as a telephone is, and they carry a much broader responsibility than ever before.
Communications are held, largely because of their importance, to high quality levels, and quality is largely measured by availability. Outages are typically measured in seconds and, with lives on the line, longer service breaches not only aren't acceptable -- they are seldom tolerated.
This speaks to the incredible importance of timely communications. If a doctor and patient can't communicate, if an off-duty police officer can't be paged, and if a politician or government official can't be contacted, the results can be catastrophic. This extends to financial, where an unplanned disconnection could make the difference between a massive profit and a loss in a stock trade, or the inability to close a deal which then goes to a competitor, or the loss of a frustrated major customer who can't make timely contact.
For better or worse, RIM placed itself into an industry that requires a massive focus on assuring uptime, and not only did it not meet this requirement, its actions indicate it never intended to.
History of Customer Abuse
During the NTP IP litigation, a core of RIM's defense was that large numbers of critical customers, including those I listed above, would be disconnected should NTP prevail in its injunction, putting the nation, and likely several others, at risk. These agencies received special protection.
In effect, RIM held the U.S. Government and key enterprise clients hostage to assure a positive outcome to their trial. Not only was that incredibly distasteful, particularly given current world events, they appeared to be more than willing to go through with this threat for those not so well connected. This forced these entities to both come to their defense in court and to work through workaround programs that would allow their critical employees to remain connected should RIM decide not to settle.
In the decades I've been in and covered technology, I have never seen a company of RIM's stature so blatantly abuse the trust they had been given. This simply showcased a complete lack of regard for their customers, who they seemed to believe were expendable in their war with NTP.
I would think those customers might take issue with that assessment.
The Current Problem: More of the Same
The most recent outage began on April 17 and ended mid-day on April 18. The only timely alert that came out was apparently from some of the carriers who, under a wave of customer calls, indicated the problem wasn't theirs but was RIM's. RIM remained nearly silent until after the event ended.
Their explanation is chilling in both the lack of competence it appears to represent and the lack of customer commitment it clearly emphasizes. I could go on to suggest it may imply RIM thinks IT buyers are stupid.
Evidently on the night of the 17th, RIM applied a patch that had been inadequately tested; this patch brought the system down. It then attempted to fail back to the previous build only to find that this process had evidently also been inadequately tested -- it failed as well.
This is a failure of process and two back-to-back system failures. We add to this the lack of notification and we have something called a Cluster....
Now, any senior IT manager knows you don't do system updates on critical communications systems during the week. You find dead time on the weekend, you test the hell out of it, you assure recovery works, and then you let it go. If it fails, you immediately notify customers that there is an outage and how long it is likely to continue. Given it is their e-mail system you've killed, you can't send them an e-mail alone -- you need to issue a press statement if the outage is likely to last more than a couple of hours.
This last is to prevent collateral damage with your clients.
Because RIM didn't do this, the collateral damage was extensive. RIM customers blamed their IT shops, who blamed their carriers, who scrambled to understand why things weren't working. Individual users were resetting phones and adjusting settings and likely, in some cases, rendering their BlackBerries unusable as they struggled to restore a service they had no power to restore.
Clearly customer support calls spiked and as the day wound on people started to panic a little and stories of physical damage to the BlackBerries began to circulate. As bad as this was, it could have been worse, as the day before was the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Had RIM failed on that day, they might have been connected to an inability to respond quickly to that tragedy by those who depended on RIM for their connectivity. In short, they missed by a few hours what could have potentially become a company-ending event.
RIM Can't Be Trusted
The lack of accountability with this event, coupled with what appears to be practices inconsistent with a company in RIM's business, has some suggesting that this is not an accurate disclosure of what happened. That this is part of an effort to cover up what could be a critical problem with regard to the security or reliability of RIM's systems.
Whether true or not, the lack of notification alone breached the necessary trust that must surround any communications technology, particularly one that is so critical in today's world.
By RIM's own actions, it has clearly shown it can't be trusted. It has now repeatedly put its customers at unnecessary risk. That should be taken into account when you choose service providers. If you can't trust the vendor, there is no basis for doing business with them.
Yesterday RIM announced a service that would allow people to put their non-BlackBerry devices under the RIM service. That seems ill-advised at this time.