Always on, sometimes off

By February 15, 2008

On February 11, Blackberry users in the United States and Canada were plagued with the second serious email outage in 10 months. Was it the end of the world or an annoying inconvenience? This was the day to hold off on the Crac

kBerry jokes. Blackberry users, who are notoriously addicted to their always-on email, were in no mood for humor as they became unable to receive any messages for an estimated three hours. One can only imagine the panic gripping RIM staffers back at headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the PR folks issued a terse statement*.

Garth Turner, a member of the Canadian Parliament reached by a news service, was widely quoted in all the news media about the impact of the outage. Let’s hear Turner one more time. “Everyone’s in crisis because they’re all picking away at their BlackBerrys and nothing’s happening. It’s almost like cutting the phone cables or a total collapse in telegraph lines a century ago. It just isolates people in a way that’s quite phenomenal.”

It sure sounds like BlackBerry users have an issue with dependence. Some of them were even calling for their companies to issue them a substitute smart phone such as – gasp – a Treo from Palm. OK, they are conducting serious business on their device and being out of touch for three hours is probably unbearable. But people, can we take a big breath and wonder if this frenzied always-on lifestyle may not be a self-imposed form of torture?

A few days before the outage in the US and Canada, I was zipping around Paris in a van stamped with a Blackberry logo. As our chauffeur drove us around, RIM’s technical account manager for France was demonstrating a sleek Blackberry Pearl 8110 complete with emailing functions and a GPS system. The Pearl series is RIM’s attempt to make their very professional device more fun. With its more elegant design and multimedia functions, a BlackBerry Pearl is supposed to fit in a lifestyle that keeps blurring the line between professional and personal lives.

Crackberry Blackberry

It might be clear to most readers, but let’s spell it out anyways. Research in Motion (RIM) is the company that develops the device (the Blackberry) and the software it runs. RIM also manages the servers on which all the data is stored. Of course, RIM has partnerships with dozens of wireless carriers to deliver the service to its 12 million users all over the world.

“We don’t only make the device,” explained my guide to me. “Unlike other manufacturers who only create the device, we control the solution from beginning to end.” This, RIM believes, is the strength of the Blackberry. RIM and Blackberry are Siamese twins who live or die together.

Let me tell you a little anecdote to put things into context. As I was writing this, I got a call from a fellow reporter attending a conference in Ethiopia. She had no email access at her hotel and was calling on a phone line which made it difficult for us to understand each other at times. Now, that’s tough.

* “BlackBerry data services in the Americas experienced intermittent delays on late Monday afternoon (beginning approximately 3:30 pm eastern). Data service levels were restored in the early evening at approximately 6:30 pm eastern. Voice and SMS services operated normally during this time. No messages were lost and message queues began to be cleared after normal service levels were restored. RIM continues to focus on providing industry-leading reliability in its products and services and apologizes to customers for any inconvenience,” the statement from RIM read.

By Isabelle Boucq for Atelier

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