Column

RIM boss lacks tact in the art of fessing up after BlackBerry outage

CHICAGO -- A simple explanation would have done.

So when Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) president and co-CEO Mike Lazaridis downplayed recent BlackBerry outages and brushed off questions about competition from Microsoft at Gartner Inc.'s Wireless & Mobile Summit last week, he had his own customers walking out grumbling.

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One attendee who ditched out about halfway through the hourlong presentation jostled away with his buddies, calling it the stupidest keynote address he had ever seen.

And for the next few days, just mentioning Lazaridis around the conference brought smirks and eye-rolling. One high-level IT manager recalled the trouble he went through just trying to convince RIM, maker of BlackBerry, to let him know when scheduled maintenance was coming.

Others just didn't see why the man couldn't open up a bit. He was addressing a room full of IT personnel, after all. These people are very familiar with the feeling of being blamed for something that isn't their fault.

RIM suffered a major three-hour North American BlackBerry outage Feb. 10, which followed an April 18, 2007 shutdown. Both hit during waking hours in America. Both left users without email.

A less significant BlackBerry outage was reported Feb. 20.

So here we are onstage last Monday, and two Gartner analysts are calling BlackBerry a "mission-critical device" and asking Lazaridis politely what he has to say for himself. He goes so far as to define the problem, in an analyst's words, as a "change process," a growing pain of sorts that ultimately means better service. Specifics are notably absent.

"It's one of those big-system problems," Lazaridis says. Fair enough.

"The amount of uptime that our users have enjoyed through the years has been quite high." True.

Weak answers and question-dodging are offensive.

,

"Sometimes, something happens." Umm….

Lazaridis also credited RIM with keeping customers "abreast of what's going on." You can('t) find all the press releases here.

Gartner's analysts spent the next three days stopping just short of recommending that CIOs stay with or choose BlackBerry for their companies. That's the right advice. Weak answers and question-dodging are offensive, but BlackBerry is still very much the market leader in what it does, and that generally translates to better, cheaper services.

For the time being, at least. BlackBerry's grip on the mobile email market is starting to slack, if only slightly and anecdotally.

First, there's the Windows Mobile 6.0 (soon to be 6.1) OS, which conventional wisdom seems to be suffers only because it is so enterprise-friendly and doesn't cater to consumers. One of the analysts Monday asked about the problem of both working with and competing with Microsoft, received a nonanswer from Lazaridis, called him out on it and still didn't get an answer.

That's when people started to trickle away.

Three days later, that Apple guy showed up in his trademark jeans and black shirt and as much as said iPhone was coming after BlackBerry. iPhone will now support Microsoft Exchange and has a software development kit.

So not 48 hours after Gartner vice president and distiguished analyst Ken Dulaney was listing all the reasons CIOs should shun iPhone, his colleague, analyst Van Baker, was telling The New York Times that "the majority of the objections IT managers have had about the iPhone have been addressed today."

Yes, RIM is still the leader. BlackBerry is still mega-strong. Will iPhone suddenly take over the business mobile email market? Doubtful. Dulaney's very valid concerns really haven't been addressed, and Apple has never been a favorite of CIOs.

But RIM is very much not alone anymore. And when CIOs have more legit choices in the mobile phone market, Lazaridis may want to consider fleshing his answers out a bit more. Otherwise, they won't just be walking out of his talk.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer


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