Blackberry’s Perfect Storm

A perfect storm is defined as being: a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors.A perfect storm is certainly what RIM, makers of the Blackberry, have been experiencing recently. For three days, starting on 10th October a problem caused by a router in an unassuming two-storey building in Slough, UK affected almost every one of its users around the world. Not only were users unable to Twitter, or Facebook, more seriously, those users who rely on their Blackberrys for email to do their business may have lost valuable work. Whilst many commentators may have made light of the situation, because people could no longer tweet their every movement, there is a far more serious message here which is that as a civilisation we are now completely dependent on software and hardware technology that runs our daily lives.

Here’s what Blackberry had to say on their service bulletin board on 11th October, mid-way through the crisis:

The messaging and browsing delays that some of you are still experiencing were caused by a core switch failure within RIM’s infrastructure. Although the system is designed to failover to a back-up switch, the failover did not function as previously tested…

Unfortunately for Blackberry it was not only this technical and process failure that formed part of their perfect storm but two other factors, they could not hoped to have predicted, also occurred recently. One was the launch of the latest iPhone 4S from Apple which was released the very same week as Blackberry’s network failure. The other is the allegation that Blackberry’s, or more precisely the Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM), were implicated in the recent riots that took place in London and other UK cities in the summer.  For many teens armed with a BlackBerry, BBM has replaced text messaging because it is free, instant and more part of a much larger community than regular SMS. Also, unlike Twitter or Facebook, many BBM messages are untraceable by the authorities.

From an IT architecture point of view clearly the technical and process failure of such a crucial data centre should just not have been allowed to happen. In some ways Blackberry has been a victim of its own success with the number of users growing from 10 million in 2005 to 70 million now without a corresponding increase in capacity of its network and fully functioning failover facility. However the more interesting, and in some ways more intractable, problem is the competitive, sociological and even ethical aspects of the situation. When Apple launched the first iPhone back in 2007 they changed forever the way people interacted with their phones. Some people have observed that the tactile way in which people “stroke” an iPhone rather than jab at tiny buttons has led to their more widespread adoption. Clearly a case of getting the human-computer interface right paying great dividends. Who would have thought however that the very aspect that once made Blackberry’s so popular with business users (their security) could backfire on them in quite such a significant way? Architecture (and design) is not just about getting the right features at the right price it is also about thinking through the likely impact of those features in contexts that may not initially have been envisaged.

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