TORONTO - Some BlackBerry users were questioning the reliability of the smartphone's services on Wednesday after a second outage in less than a week left subscribers across North America stranded without Internet, email or messenger connectivity.
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter were bombarded with complaints from BlackBerry users, even as most of the services returned to normal.
Meanwhile, Research In Motion (TSX:RIM), the Waterloo, Ont.-based creator of the BlackBerry and operator of its network, blamed a software upgrade for the problem, which it said was confined to North and South America.
"RIM's first priority during any service interruption is always to restore service and then establish, monitor and maintain stability," the company said in a statement emailed to The Canadian Press.
"Proper root cause analysis typically takes at least several days or often longer and RIM of course wants to provide customers with accurate and complete information in such situations."
However, the company did not offer an explanation to consumers about the outage on its website Wednesday.
A statement was issued to the media explaining that a recently released version of its BlackBerry Messenger software was at the centre of the glitch, though no explanation was given on how an instant messaging program could crash their entire system.
On Wednesday, the company released a new version downloadable on the BlackBerry App World storefront application which it said would help fix the problem.
Some analysts suggest that RIM has more than a technical glitch on their hands as consumers become increasingly conscious of problems with their BlackBerrys, a factor which some suggest could ultimately tarnish the device's reputation.
"Anything that erodes that issue of reliability reduces the perceived (competitive) advantage for RIM - in other words, this is a big deal," said Duncan Stewart, director of research and analysis at DSam Consulting.
"Human beings are bad at statistics, and when something happens twice in four years, we tend to view them as random events. When they happen one week after another, we think it's a pattern."
The outage impacted one of the two BlackBerry networks operated by RIM, which means that enterprise customers - or those registered on the business network which handles subscribers in the financial community and at other corporations - were unaffected.
Instead, the outage rippled through the consumer network late Tuesday night, bouncing back emails, locking up chat conversations and shutting web surfers out of their services.
Word of the outage quickly spread as BlackBerry addicts complained about the problems on technology forums and through their Twitter accounts. Before long, outage became a talking point at Christmas parties and on other popular Internet social networks like Facebook.
"I was literally talking to six people over BlackBerry Messenger and all of a sudden nobody was replying," said Corey Marshall, a longtime BlackBerry user.
"I kept unplugging my phone, turning it off and on. I was getting very upset when it wouldn't work."
Marshall, 23, said he bases most of his social life on his BlackBerry, and for many friends, only uses the smartphone's messenger services to keep in touch. When the services went down, he had no way to contact them because he's never exchanged phone numbers.
"I've been used to having a cellphone since I was 14 years old, and my BlackBerry has become a regular part of my routine," he said.
"My BlackBerry is hugely important to me."
The latest glitches come on the heels of another BlackBerry email outage in North America last Thursday. At the time, Research In Motion said technicians had isolated and resolved the issue and were investigating the cause. The company didn't say how many users were affected or how long that outage lasted.
Marshall said the latest network failure has frustrated him enough that he's considered switching to an iPhone when his carrier contract expires in February.
While some customers might view switching devices as the solution, other smart phones also have network outages, though when they do fail, it's felt on a much smaller scale.
Carmi Levy, a technology analyst at AR Communications Inc. in London, Ont., said most BlackBerry services operate on centralized networks run by RIM, while other phones transfer all of their data through carriers like Rogers Wireless (TSX:RCI.B) and AT&T.
The difference between the two network designs is both a competitive advantage for RIM and one of its greatest challenges.
To its benefit, operating its own networks allows RIM to offer subscribers an extra layer of security to any data transfer through RIM's network. On the downside, if that secure network crashes, then the impact is felt across millions of devices on multiple carriers.
"It's a choke point, and a single point of vulnerability that has been apparent since the first outage," Levy said.
"Even though the network operation centre model does offer a higher level of security, it also introduces a point of failure that clearly RIM does not understand."
RIM counts more than 36 million subscribers, including thousands of users in both the Canadian and U.S. government. U.S. President Barack Obama insisted on keeping his BlackBerry when he entered the White House.
It was not immediately known how many users were affected, but the company based in Waterloo, Ont., confirmed some emails were delayed, adding that phone and SMS - the short message servicing texting function - were unaffected.
"Root cause is currently under review but based on preliminary analysis, it currently appears that the issue stemmed from a flaw in two recently released versions of BlackBerry Messenger (versions 18.104.22.168 and 22.214.171.124) that caused an unanticipated database issue within the BlackBerry infrastructure," a spokesman for RIM said in a statement.
"RIM has taken corrective action to restore service."
After originally focusing on corporate or government customers, RIM now gets most of its new subscribers in the consumer market, thanks to touch-screen models like the BlackBerry Storm.
But RIM faces competitors such as Apple's iPhone, which had 17 per cent of the smartphone market and the brand-new Motorola Droid. Investors worried about cutthroat competition in the smartphone market have pushed down RIM's stock by more than 23 per cent since September.
While the iPhone has been hugely popular, it also has not been as reliable as many users would like. AT&T, the sole carrier of the device in the U.S., has been upgrading its network to reduce the dropped connections and long waits people have encountered when trying to run programs.
In Canada, Telus (TSX:T) and Bell Canada (TSX:BCE) recently upgraded their networks and now sell the iPhone, joining Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B), which had been selling it exclusively since mid-2008.
Although BlackBerry service is sold by wireless carriers, RIM manages its messaging network itself. The centralized structure means that any problems can affect millions of users.
For consumers, data security has never been as significant of a selling point as convenience and reliability of services, which is why the growing number of outages has concerned investors.
The first major BlackBerry outage occurred in April 2007 when the company said a software update caused a rolling series of errors that impacted the operational database and memory. Backup systems also failed to work, and caused the company's entire email system to crash.
Since then, several outages have affected millions of subscribers, and the company has faced growing scrutiny over the speed it takes to repair the service and its lack of disclosure to its customers.
RIM shares were down 26 cents to $70.95 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.