BlackBerry outage leaves users thumb-founded

Times Staff Writers

For as long as 14 hours, belts across America didn’t vibrate. Thumbs stopped clacking on tiny keyboards. People were transported to a more innocent age, a time when sitcoms could be watched uninterrupted and meetings had to be arranged by, gasp, phone.

The BlackBerry e-mail network went down around 5 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday, and David Hyman, an online music executive, suddenly knew how it felt to be an addict. He was trying to retrieve electronic messages as he drove across the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

“I push that button like a nervous habit, all day, all night,” he said. “When you don’t get your e-mail, you’re like a drug user cut from your source.”


Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, wouldn’t say why its e-mail system crashed, halting messages for most of its 5.8 million North American customers until it largely restored service by late Wednesday morning.

Voice calls weren’t affected -- but important late-night e-mails didn’t get through.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, a comic-book executive in Los Angeles, keeps two BlackBerrys -- one with Cingular, the other with Verizon Wireless -- in case one goes down. After both failed him, he drove more than an hour to a morning meeting at 20th Century Fox only to learn it had been postponed via e-mail during the night.

“Because it happened overnight, it was worse than had it happened in the afternoon,” he said.

Many people, so hooked that they call the devices CrackBerrys, didn’t know what to do with themselves during the first nationwide BlackBerry outage in more than two years.

The pain was particularly acute in the nation’s capital. If politics is the lifeblood of Washington, the BlackBerry is a major artery.

Forget national security issues -- stranded e-mails were the first order of business at a White House press briefing Wednesday morning.

“I apologize to a number of you who tried e-mailing over the last 14 hours,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters, adding that his team had “started a 12-step group” to cope with the loss.

“This entire town runs on BlackBerrys,” said Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Assn., who kept reflexively checking his device even though he knew it wasn’t working. “The only thing here that’s worse than a BlackBerry outage is a snowstorm -- and the impact is pretty similar.”

Much as how snowstorms prompt kids to go sledding, the BlackBerry outage gave David Thomas, a Washington lobbyist, an excuse to catch up on old episodes of “The Sopranos” and “The Colbert Report” with his wife, Brooke, on Tuesday night.

“We had a great evening uninterrupted,” he said. “I got a great night’s sleep. I didn’t hear the BlackBerry buzzing all night. I wouldn’t want to see this happening all the time. But occasionally, it’s a blessing in disguise.”

Souheil Badran, an Internet executive in Milwaukee, usually catches up with e-mail from his company’s Swedish offices over morning coffee. But when he had no new BlackBerry messages on Wednesday, he thought it must be a Swedish holiday.

Pent-up notes started pouring in later. “I must admit that the coffee tasted better and reading the paper was more enjoyable,” Badran said.

In Los Angeles, visiting Federal Communications Commission member Michael J. Copps expected to find about a dozen e-mails on his BlackBerry in the morning but had none.

Yet Bruce Gottlieb, a legal advisor traveling with Copps, wondered how he lucked out. “I am the only one I know who has had it working flawlessly,” Gottlieb said.

Some customers might well have “dodged the bullet,” said Carmi Levy, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Canada.

The root cause of the outage, he said, was in the core network near Research in Motion’s Waterloo headquarters in the province of Ontario. It caused a backup in e-mail that left the system unable to handle even the diminished traffic at that late hour.

“It raises questions about the robustness of the system,” Levy said.

Calling the service “mission-critical” for business and government, Yankee Group analyst Eugene Signorini faulted Research in Motion for not telling customers more about the breakdown.

The turmoil it caused gave BlackBerry users a glimpse into what might have happened last year if RIM had shut down its service. The company teetered on collapse as it fought a potential injunction in a patent infringement case it had lost. But it relented and agreed to a settlement after its subscriber growth started slowing.

But the company is growing furiously again, in large part because of its slim Pearl handsets.

Still, many customers who developed backup measures after RIM lost its patent case started revisiting those plans Wednesday.

Rosenberg, whose Platinum Studios creates comics and develops them into TV shows and movies, said his tactics for preventing the loss of important e-mails hadn’t taken a middle-of-the-night crash into account.

Now he has that covered: On Wednesday he ordered 50 laptop computers for employees to use at home.

“We’re an international firm now, and the laptops cost money,” he said. “But in the scheme of things, with what we lost this morning, it’s cheaper to buy 50 laptops.”


Times staff writers Jim Puzzanghera and Michelle Quinn contributed to this report.