Ooops, they did it again. RIM suffered an email breakdown and shut Blackberry users out of their mobile email for several hours yesterday. The good news, I suppose, is that a lot of people are already on vacation for the Christmas/New Year's holiday. The bad news is that a lot of those people were hoping to sneak a peek at email on their Blackberry smart phones during the day, so they wouldn't feel quite so behind when they go back to the office.
Officials at RIM blamed a software update for the problem, linking it to the failure less than a week ago that left users without their Blackberry email for most of a day. It's good that they seem to have a handle on the root cause of the problem (though it's possible they don't -- they just know that the problem comes from somewhere in the code of the mid-December update), but it doesn't create the sort of warm, fuzzy feeling you'd like to get from a critical service provider.
The real problem for users is that this sort of outage is likely to become more common rather than less frequent. As smart phones become more commonly used as critical business tools they will become more frequent targets of criminal attacks. While this most recent outage was apparently not the result of an attack, it points out that the system, like all modern IT systems, is made up of many components, each of which represents a point of vulnerability for the user. When one of these vulnerabilities is exposed, through attack or accident, the results are affecting enough people to draw the attention of large-audience media outlets like The New York Times noting user outrage and Instapundit noting the Blackberry outage.
For the smart phone device and service providers, the problem is more profound. Simply put, there is a historical limit on ust how many options the market will support for any critical device. That number is, roughly speaking, two. For the longest time, Palm and RIM had the handheld device market. When the iPhone hit the market, Palm was the "loser", dropping rapidly in market share as the new interface of the iPhone and the established network and push technology of the Blackberry took hold of the market. Now, Android-based phones are beginning to appear, and the question is whether they will supplant either the iPhone or the Blackberry as the second major choice for enterprise and consumer customers.
I frankly don't see Android pushing the iPhone aside because of the App Store. The iPhone has become an exciting platform for application developers, and those apps (along with a consistent user interface) will keep the iPhone's market humming along for some time to come. That means it will come down to a Blackberry/Android battle. This one could be very interesting.
On the one hand, RIM's push technology is superb and, until the last few days, had been rock solid in performance and security. Furthermore, the Blackberry is a known quantity for enterprise IT folks and is not a popular application development platform for consumer-oriented software writers. That makes it somewhat more stable and knowable a platform for the enterprise. On the other hand, the basic application stability has now been brought into question -- one more serious application outage in the near-term could be devestating to RIM's reputation -- and a "bring your own" philosophy of smart phone acquisition for companies makes popular phones more likely to be brought in than stable phones.
The Blackberry isn't going away overnight, but RIM is going to have to dig deep and make some user interface and application improvements if they're not going to be overtaken by Android. History works against RIM, here, because they've been so successful with the existing platform. It can be very tough to change what's worked in the past, but the nature of the IT world is that improvements will win out in the long run. If RIM can't get its house in order, it could well find itself sitting with Palm and a host of other very good technologies on the outside of the market looking in and wondering what happened.