Even with the outages, the BlackBerry is still ‘in’


You may have to be a customer of the Toronto transit system to understand why a couple of service outages aren’t going to lead people to give up their BlackBerries.

Although Canadians tend to expect snow in winter, the country’s largest city seems crippled at the least amount of accumulation. Suddenly people with fully functioning cars duck out of work early, our local daily paper devotes pages to stories about people slipping on sidewalks, and subways just grind to a halt. It doesn’t matter that these snowfalls are often predicted in advance. Suddenly it’s as though service cannot be counted upon, and that users of transit services should expect nothing better. Light rail just stops. Subways are sort of stop and go. Bus rides are are slower than actually driving. In comparison to the Toronto Transit Commission, Research In Motion’s track record isn’t that bad.

I once complained, along with many others, that RIM wasn’t doing a good enough job of keeping users informed of its problems when an outage occurs. The response this time is markedly improved, even if the root cause – a software upgrade gone bad – remains deliberately vague. That this has happened twice in less than a year is only notable because the BlackBerry platform is so predominant, not because this is a particularly high number, or because the outage was particularly long (three hours without e-mail? Chill out, people).

When the transit system in Toronto breaks down, the TTC is trying to get better at communicating, too. Sometimes, the garbled P.A. system tells us there was a mechanical failure. At other times an alarm has been pulled. Most serious is when the stoppage is referred to as “an emergency situation” at a given station. Yes, at such times you think briefly about giving up transit for a car, but then reality kicks in and you realize car traffic comes with its own routine delays. As much as Microsoft might like to build momentum off of RIM’s misfortunes (“I thought you might be interested in speaking with an expert that can comment on a stable mobile e-mail platform that businesses can count on,” a Redmond flack wrote me early yesterday), users do anything rather than venture into the unknown. Windows Mobile 6 may give IT more control over devices and network access, but a lot of companies would be doing well to go a year with only one or two minor episodes of downtime.

A user’s tolerance for performance failure is directly related to their dependency on the service in question. It also has a lot to do with the opportunity cost of changing platforms. If your BlackBerry goes down – or your internal Web server, for that matter – you don’t immediately start searching for a way to get rid of it. You spend time getting caught up on everything you missed during the downtime, and this usually leaves little room for ripping and replacing. So it is with the TTC, which manages to pack dozens of us into shuttle buses throughout January and February, and so it is with execs who love their BlackBerries. As much as we may grumble, an outage doesn’t signal a service provider or its products are on the way out.

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