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I Believe(d) In A Thing Called BlackBerry

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I can trace my love affair with the BlackBerry back to 2004, when I arranged for the band I worked for at the time to get free 7230s from O2 in exchange for a faintly embarrassing photo and press release that got them featured in The Sun's Gizmo section but also in the Observer Music Monthly's list of 'Top 10 Scrooges' later that same year.

I got a 7230 too, the blue pastille-shaped one that was pretty much the only option at the time. It was wider, though thinner, than the 9700 Bold I have now but recognisably the same device, with the full-width QWERTY keyboard that's still a signal feature distinguishing it from most other phones.

By comparison with the Nokias I'd had until then it seemed unimaginably advanced. Of course, it would seem incomparably prosaic next to today's 'superphones', but then that's a sleight that gets hurled my way by iPhone (and now Android) users even now.

I will admit to a few lustful glances in its direction when the iPhone emerged in 2007 but when I discovered that it didn't have a feature as fundamental as copy-and-paste, something I'd been enjoying for three years by then, I was confirmed in my prejudice - I was a BlackBerry user through and through. In any case, any time I tried to type on a touch screen my errors were legion (and damnyouautocorrect.com shows I'm far from alone in that regard).
The other reason why I never strayed - going from 7230 to 7100x to 8100 to 8110 - was the robustness of the email setup. Until this week it seemed completely bulletproof, and the knowledge that governments and FTSE 100 companies used the devices too is clearly a feather in the cap of manufacturer RIM. Their tacit approval demonstrated a confidence in the security and reliability of the platform.

Which makes this week's outage, its length and moreover the way RIM and the networks have responded to it all the more surprising - and damaging. For three days now, with seemingly only one 'interruption' on Tuesday morning when the service did actually work for a few hours, we BlackBerry users have had to make do with not just no email, but no web browsing, no Twitter or Facebook - nothing that relies on an active Internet connection.

That turned my £300 smartphone into something with all of the functionality of the Bosch 509e I had in 1999 and unlike that model, it's not even translucent orange. I was reduced to Tweeting by text message and hopping from one Wi-Fi zone to another in a bid to stay connected. I managed to make a foursquare check-in from the gig I went to on Monday thanks to an open hotspot in the GAME store above the venue!

In addition, no Internet connection means no BlackBerry Messenger, the cause of apoplexy for a lot of users. I used to think of us as a happy few until I realised a few years ago that thanks to the cost (or lack of it) and convenience of BBM the BlackBerry's appeal had spread far beyond its original, more corporate userbase.

The hardcore among us who feel some loyalty to the devices and platform might yet tolerate this but those who got a BlackBerry for BBM and BBM alone and find that the rug has been pulled from under them might feel a little differently when their upgrade date rolls around.

The other sore point is the way the debacle has been managed: news is pretty thin on the ground and RIM seems to be keeping not just users but the networks in the dark. My network, Vodafone, belatedly sent a text announcement on Tuesday evening after almost 36 hours of downtime, their Twitter feed is reactively pointing users to a forum post that hasn't been updated in days and is filling up with disgruntled customers. They're sending that link, they say, because that's where an update will be posted when there is one, but none is forthcoming.

Meanwhile the @BlackBerryHelp Twitter feed has gone dark, with no Tweets in the last 16 hours, in spite of the company's press statement promising that they would "continue to keep [us] informed". The problem, apparently caused by a core switch failure, is "now being resolved". No doubt engineers are working around the clock, but my unhappiness might be tempered somewhat by more regular updates. It would if nothing else give the impression that RIM was prepared for this eventuality, rather than seeming to confirm the sentiments of a whistleblower quoted in The Guardian earlier this week that they've effectively been caught with their pants down by the rapid growth that BBM has fostered. The scalability of its server architecture has apparently come a distant second to untethered expansion.

Industry prognosticators have widely predicted RIM's demise, with the company making a major mis-step with the PlayBook (a product in search of a use case if ever I saw one) and the growth of the Android platform coming at the expense of BlackBerry.

The failure of BBM could easily have the effect of hollowing out the casual userbase, while successful corporate trials of the iPhone at the likes of Deutsche Bank mean that the BlackBerry is no longer the default, go-to corporate phone either. The new iPhone 4S is available in a day or two and BlackBerry's push email service is no longer the only game in town, with Apple's native Microsoft Exchange support at least as easy to set up as a 'Berry is.

As for me, my contract is up in December and all of a sudden the 9900 Bold I was getting so excited about - it has a keyboard and a touchscreen! - no longer looks quite so tempting. Given that I'm just one of an estimated 10 million subscribers in EMEA who might be thinking that way, this disruption could hardly have come at a worse time.

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