After two successive days of either broken or sluggish BlackBerry Internet Service across three continents, have Research In Motion finally made the blunder that will cost them their last remaining powerful asset: user loyalty? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
How far we’ve come since the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States of America. Or rather, how far down Research in Motion has fallen since those days.
Remember the big faff made about Obama’s BlackBerry? The US Secret Service wanted to confiscate the phone, deeming it to be a potential point of security breach that they just couldn’t risk. Obama told his bodyguards to take a chill pill, the White House arranged for extra security on that particular mobile and BlackBerry were positively glowing with smugness.
Analysts praised the company’s security. The traffic of BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) is encrypted and routed through RIM’s own servers. The system was reputed to be almost unbreakable. In fact, despots complained that they couldn’t spy on their own citizens if they used BlackBerries.
The Waterloo, Ontario-based corporation was the darling of the tech world.
That was then.
Today, it is a matter of the company treading water between blunders, PR gaffes and disappointments.
The company that made smartphones ubiquitous failed to innovate and keep up with the rest of the market. In a world of apps in open markets, RIM still insisted on tightly controlling the software and user experience on mobile phones.
Unbelievably, it stuck to its guns even as it began to take crippling market share and revenue hits.
But importantly, those who were using BlackBerry to begin with didn’t seem keen to be going anywhere. They liked their phones. There are more BlackBerries in use in SA than any other smartphone and corporate networks adore them, say industry insiders.
But then the last two days happened.
On Monday, BlackBerry users in Africa, the Middle East and Europe were cut off from web browsing and the Blackberry Messenger service after a server in Slough experienced some issues. The service downtime appeared not to affect corporate clients, suggesting that the crash was limited to BIS consumer systems and not enterprise systems. That news came as scant comfort to millions of users across three continents.
The service came back up again on Monday night, only to go back down again on Tuesday afternoon.
During this entire time, RIM remained stolidly silent, leaving it to mobile operators to deal with outraged users.
“We are working to resolve an issue currently impacting some BlackBerry subscribers in Europe, Middle East and Africa,” RIM said on Monday. “We’re investigating, and we apologise to our customers for any inconvenience caused while this is resolved.”
Watch: BlackBerry users suffer outage in Al Jazeera English:
It released another statement on Tuesday, saying that it was again operational, but did not provide any explanation for the outages.
On Tuesday afternoon, enquiries to RIM and its public relations wing were met with silence.
The Register, a UK tabloid said, “RIM hasn’t explained what went wrong, but sent over a statement saying it was very sorry. However, admitting that ‘some BlackBerry subscribers in the EMEA region experienced delays with BlackBerry services’ is something of an understatement from a service which went titsup for 12 hours across huge parts of the world.”
As much as business types around the world have come to rely on their BlackBerry devices, wholesale mutiny is very possible. Reporters in the affected areas mentioned ever-growing rumbles of discontent.
“Users have once again taken to Twitter to vent their frustration, with many pledging to switch to an iPhone or Android device,” the Telegraph said.
South Africa’s TechCentral recorded a similar reaction, as did Al Jazeera English, the Cape Times and The Washington Post.
RIM’s chosen mode of communication on this matter – stony silence – is only adding insult to injury. On Tuesday night, we finally heard from RIM. They said, “Some users in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, India, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are experiencing messaging and browsing delays. We are working to restore normal service as quickly as possible. We apologise for any inconvenience this has caused.” Right.
So, we must obviously ask: Quo vadis, Canadian makers of consumer electronics goods?
Back in July, the chief operating officer of Apple, Tim Cook (now the top man), announced that 88% of Fortune 500 companies used iPhones, and 75% used iPads. He was clearly thumbing his nose at BlackBerry, the erstwhile kings of corporate toys. In the meantime, RIM has recorded three straight quarters of losses, and a 50% share price drop since the beginning of 2011. At the same time, BlackBerry was getting one million new subscribers a month in (you guessed it) Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These are RIM’s growth markets. This particular connectivity disaster could not have happened in worse areas.
But all is not lost. We need only look at Microsoft to see recovery is possible. The company that dominates the personal computer market missed the take-off of the mobile phone as the PC and the apps-driven market. But they have since recovered, and the upcoming Windows 8 operating system is tablet-compatible. Microsoft is also developing a tablet with Samsung.
For RIM, the strategy it may have to take to revive its market dominance is the opposite.
It needs to open up the Blackberry App World in a big way – the target rivals are Apple’s iStores and the Android app store. And on that note, the BlackBerry devices need faster processors and more memory to run multiple apps. My particular BlackBerry Bold 2 has developed an annoying habit of stalling, and then kindly asking me to delete some apps so it could have more memory to run smoothly.
But most of all, RIM needs to focus on BIS. Things like the BlackBerry Playbook are mere distractions from what the BlackBerry should really be about – free Internet browsing, instant messaging and seamless email service. DM
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