Bereft of BlackBerrys, the Untethered Make Do

Bereft of BlackBerrys, the Untethered Make Do
Bereft of BlackBerrys, the Untethered Make Do 

April 19, 2007

Where were you when the BlackBerrys went out?

On Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time, technical problems cut off more 
than five million BlackBerry users in the United States from their 
cherished wireless e-mail. Service was restored 10 long, data-starved 
hours later.

The BlackBerry blackout was grueling to many and revealed just how 
professionally and emotionally dependent so many people had become on 
their pocket-size electronic lifelines.

Stuart Gold was in Phoenix on a business trip when the service went 
down. Mr. Gold, the marketing director for Omniture, a software firm, 
noticed ominous red Xs next to his outgoing e-mails.

He is not proud of what happened next.

I started freaking out, he said. I started taking it apart. Turning it 
off. Turning it on. I took the battery out and cleaned it on my shirt. I 
was running around my hotel like a freak. Its very sad. I love this 

At 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, full of anxiety about the prospect of 
spending a traveling day untethered, Mr. Gold awoke and made a beeline 
for his still motionless phone. At 7 a.m., it started vibrating with 
activity. I breathed a sigh of relief, he said. Life was good.

Many people thought they were suffering alone.

Lynn Moffat believed she had administered a fatal blow to her BlackBerry 
by dropping it early Tuesday in Grand Central Terminal. When Ms. Moffat, 
the managing director of the New York Theater Workshop, learned on the 
radio that the service disruption was widespread, I was so relieved it 
wasnt just me, but all my BlackBerry brothers and sisters, she said.

Others cycled through complex waves of emotion, including a bit of 
paranoia. Zach Nelson, chief executive of NetSuite, a software firm, was 
entertaining his top sales representatives in Barbados when e-mail from 
his 600 other employees suddenly stopped arriving on his BlackBerry. I 
started thinking people hadnt shown up for work as a revolt for us going 
to the Caribbean, he said.

Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry 
devices, shed little light yesterday on what went wrong, releasing a 
statement that said the root cause is currently under review.

Part of the problem, though, could be the services rapid growth: R.I.M. 
says it has added three million subscribers in the last 12 months, for a 
total of eight million, in part because of the popularity of its 
superslim BlackBerry Pearl.

BlackBerry users have had scares before. Last June, technical problems 
twice interrupted service, though both failures lasted only a few hours 
and were confined to specific wireless carriers that sell the devices.

A patent dispute also threatened to shut the BlackBerry service 
altogether more than a year ago. Though R.I.M. denied any patent 
violations, it avoided a crisis by settling for $612.5 million. At the 
time, the BlackBerry faithful could only speculate what deprivation 
might feel like.

Now they know. Symptoms include feelings of isolation, a strong 
temptation to lash out at company I.T. workers, and severe longing, not 
unlike drug withdrawal.

Elaine Del Rossi, chief sales officer for HTH Worldwide, an insurance 
company, reacted to the severed electronic leash with several panicked 
calls to her office in the belief that the company e-mail system was 

I quit smoking 28 years ago, she said, and that was easier than being 
without my BlackBerry.

Even at the White House, officials complained that the blackout had 
badly disrupted their morning routines, and a spokesman, Tony Fratto, 
pleaded with reporters to be patient with him.

Weve already started a 12-step program, he said, then joked that the 
White House counsel, Fred Fielding, had ordered the stoppage a reference 
to the dispute over missing e-mail messages concerning the controversial 
firing of several United States attorneys.

Rob Whitehouse, vice president for communication of University Hospitals 
in Cleveland, was brought face to face with his powerful addiction at 11 
p.m. on Tuesday night, when he realized he was jonesing for a message on 
his inexplicably silent device.

I have reached the point where I get phantom vibrations, even when Im 
not carrying the thing, he said. That sure doesnt sound too healthy, 
does it?

But some BlackBerry users looked at this weeks episode differently, 
treating the silence as a reprieve. Barry Frey, a senior vice president 
at Cablevision, stepped off an airplane on Tuesday night to find that 
his in-flight e-mail exile had been extended.

His reaction was BlackBerry blasphemy. I took a deep breath and finally 
enjoyed the feeling, he said.

The less frenetic world he describes may not only be saner, but safer. 
Peter Crist, an executive recruiter in Chicago, admits to occasionally 
steering his car with his knees while he thumbs his BlackBerry. Tuesday 
night, he put both hands on the wheel and said he had a quiet, 
uninterrupted dinner with his wife and son for a change.

Other BlackBerry users were also forced to reconsider some bad habits. 
At the annual meeting of the National Venture Capital Association in 
Washington, venture capitalists said that the interruption meant one 
less distraction, allowing them to pay closer attention to the 

In offices, employees had to speak with colleagues over the phone and in 
actual face-to-face conversations.

The BlackBerry blackout, just like the power failures of yore, could 
have even helped in the romance department if couples could actually 
connect. Robert Friedman, president of the media and entertainment 
division of, a production company, said the disruption 
gave him a lot of free time on my hands to spend with my wife, although 
I couldnt find her since her BlackBerry was off.

When service was restored yesterday morning, most BlackBerry users were 
happy to dive back in and start sending e-mail. R.I.M. was under 
pressure to make sure the failure would not happen again. BlackBerry 
e-mail is more costly than alternative services offered by Motorola and 
Microsoft, but in the past R.I.M. had justified the premium by claiming 
it had a more reliable service with a higher level of security.

Stuart Gold, the software executive, speculated that the blackout would 
create opportunities for other wireless e-mail companies, a view shared 
by others.

If one of R.I.M.s rivals were able to guarantee its service, he said, he 
would want his company to explore switching.

Others took the inconvenience more in stride, including David Plouffe, 
the campaign manager for Senator Barack Obama.

Mr. Plouffe said his eerily empty in-box brought back a time in politics 
when there were no such things as mobile phones, thumb-typing and a 
never-ending flood of e-mail.

Yet, everything seemed to work O.K., he said. Quite frankly people have 
to talk more in that situation. Thats probably a good thing.

Ian Austen, Matt Richtel, Louise Story, Joan Raymond, Jeff Bailey, Adam 
Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

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