By BRAD STONE
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
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,
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 @radical.media, 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
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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