It's a new world without BlackBerrys

April 19, 2007|By James Granelli and Alex Pham | James Granelli and Alex Pham,Los Angeles Times

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 breakfast meetings had to be arranged by - gasp! - phone.

The BlackBerry e-mail network went down about 8 p.m. Eastern 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 Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

"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 midday yesterday.

Voice calls weren't affected - but 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.

When both failed, he drove more than an hour to a morning meeting at 20th Century Fox only to learn that an e-mail postponing it had been sent out 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 briefing for journalists yesterday 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 Association, 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."

In much the same way snowstorms prompt kids to go sledding, the BlackBerry outage led David Thomas, a Washington lobbyist, 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 wouldn't want to see this happening all the time. But, occasionally, it's a blessing in disguise."

In Los Angeles, visiting Federal Communications Commission member Michael J. Copps expected to find about a dozen e-mails on his personal BlackBerry in the morning but had none. Yet Bruce Gottlieb, one of his legal advisers traveling with him, wondered how he lucked out. "I am the only one I know who has had it working flawlessly," he said.

Other customers might well have "dodged the bullet," said Carmi Levy, an analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario.

The root cause of the outage, he said, was in the core network near Research In Motion's Waterloo, Ontario, headquarters. 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.

The turmoil the outage caused gave BlackBerry users a glimpse into what would have happened last year if Research In Motion had shut down its service. The company teetered on collapse as it fought a potential injunction in a patent-infringement case it had lost. After its subscriber growth started slowing, it agreed to a settlement.

Now the company is growing furiously again.

James Granelli and Alex Pham write for the Los Angeles Times.

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