Updated: RIM stares into abyss as BlackBerry blackout spreads

When a few of BlackBerry’s European users started losing service earlier this week it was irritating for those affected, but the company was confident that things would be back to normal almost straight away. In the space of just a few days, however, the blackout has done precisely the opposite — and now that it has spread to millions of users around the world, it has become impossible for Research in Motion’s (s:RIMM) top executives to ignore.

Yesterday the Canadian company trotted out CTO David Yach to talk to the media. He assured everyone that the problem had been identified, that “engineers are working around the clock” to fix it, and that while messages might be delayed, none of them were lost.

“We understand the frustrations our customers are experiencing through the delays with the messaging and browsing…
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize unreservedly to all those people affected by this situation. We’re taking this situation extremely seriously and we’re doing everything we can to restore normal operation of our service.”

It’s something, at least. But is it enough? It’s not clear how long the problems will take to clear completely, but perhaps the damage has already been done.

This blackout is, obviously, an entirely different sort of problem to the company’s recent struggles with the Playbook tablet, or coming under fire for the way its messaging service was used in this summer’s London riots. But the company’s inability to deal with a glaring error is exposing some of its failings in the most brutal way possible.

For a start, this problem seems to be entirely of its own making. While the company is not immune to security problems, it says the original problem started not with a hack but with a failed server in Britain. That initial flaw was rapidly compounded when backup systems failed as well, pushing the impact of the glitch out to users in the Middle East, Africa and India. But things didn’t stop there, and now the problem is of a different order: the backlog of email that users have been trying to send during service disruptions have led to a cascade of blockages in America and Asia. It’s the domino effect writ large and exposes what must surely be some bad planning at the core of the business.

Secondly, its assurances mean little. Yes, as Yach says, its “engineers are working around the clock to fix the problem”. But so they should be: when your products are unable to perform their core function, you’d better treat your business as if it’s just had a heart attack. In the meantime, the impact is getting more serious day by day: whatever the engineers are doing, it isn’t working.

Third, the damage to the company’s relationship with customers is incalculable. Businesses reliant on the BlackBerry — the core users who propelled it to success — will be counting the cost of lost productivity. And its other big base, youngsters addicted to its messaging service, are having their loyalties tested. What is a phone without the ability to communicate? Why stick with a device that can’t perform the basic function you bought it for?

Mike Lazaridis walks out of BBC interviewBut over and above all of this, I think the biggest problem is in the company’s response to this crisis. The slow trickle of information from the business has been disappointing, but it’s only because there seems to have been a real leadership gap over how to handle the affair.

Sure, executives have started going on the record to make their apologies, including Yach, CIO Robin Bienfait and UK boss Stephen Bates. But the really big bosses have yet to make an appearance — despite the fact that RIM has not one but two chief executives.

Where are Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis? Why can’t at least one of them take command of this issue? It’s all very well appearing in public to launch a product, and when the wind is in your sails… but when your already-frazzled users are denied service, their fears are something that need to be dealt with at the very top. It would be bad enough if there were one CEO who had gone missing — but the bigger this problem gets, the more the inability of either man to take it on seems like willful neglect.

Sure, crisis management is tough. You don’t always want leadership to be associated with a problem that was caused further down the chain. But if RIM can’t find a way to get either of its top executives to spare subscribers a moment, what message are they sending?

Updated: Shortly after posting, Lazaridis actually issued a video apology in which he says the company let down users but can’t give a promise of when the outages will be resolved. It’s better than some corporate apologies… but is it enough?