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RIM or Precipice

News of RIM’s apologies concerning the multiple-day outage of its services beginning Saturday morning October 8 illustrates a very important point. At the retail level it may be okay to remain silent or mumble about the circumstances of an outage (as my cell provider did in this case).  However, when dealing with enterprises which purchase services in mass quantities as part of a broader strategy of delivering services to their customers through a well-equipped employee base the reverse is true.  RIM had remained silent for five days about the details, causes – and most importantly – the estimates for remediation of this outage. This is inexcusable for anyone offering an enterprise class product.

A company that understands the process of maintaining its systems and services and guaranteeing the reliability of those systems and services (and the revenues they support) will over-communicate about the circumstances of any unplanned outage.  By over communicating about an outage, the company shows the extent of its understanding, preparation, and detailed response plans. Obviously, developing incident response in a professional way is time-consuming and requires a great deal of maturity on the part of the company.  After all, you might never need these procedures and processes.  Most companies discover that developing incident response processes, tests, metrics, and plans is in and of itself a developmental activity for any large organization. These benefits can take many forms but two that are relevant here are: (1) improvements in the processes that underpin reliability itself such as reliable systems and applications development and (2) improvements in the incident response process such as better root cause analysis.  A company that can discuss these issues openly with its customers can subtly communicate that it has already brought a high level of professionalism to the problem and is in a position to leverage that professionalism for the benefit of its customers and for the reputation of the company. No amount of promise making or apologizing can substitute for this.

RIM did not do this and apparently cannot do it.  In the absence of communication during an outage, one of two explanations can be considered. The company either cannot figure it out (the most generous explanation) or they know the answer but the answer is so ugly they cannot afford to tell their customers the truth. No matter how heartfelt the apology, RIM’s enterprise customers don’t want or need apologies. What they need is information, substantial and detailed assurances about future support and possibly refunds. In a sense the damage to RIM is done. Emails were dropped and the corporate processes they supported were let down in a very public way. This debacle comes at a critical and unfortunate moment for RIM in light of iPhone and Android successes. As the outage unfloded, many people were already questioning RIM’s competitiveness and the longevity of its product line.  While it is true that no other provider even comes close to the quality of RIM’s product and service design and specifications for mony corporate procurement officers, the execution in this case shows that RIM is not able to walk the talk. This brings into question the true definition of “enterprise class.” And the tide of “bring your own device to work” is coming in inexorably and threatens to isolate RIM on a shrinking island of customer loyalty.

I can’t think of a worse time for RIM to be facing serious questions about its product and service reliability. In 30 years of professional information security practice, I have often observed that ways can be found to cut corners when it comes to the security of information systems and “bring your own device to work” is a perfect example of this. However, when it comes to reliability enterprise buyers stick to their guns and insist on the contracted reliability or else take their business elsewhere. I wonder what deals RIM has cut over the past weeks for aggrieved companies who were harmed by RIM’s outages.  Since I am a retail, second tier customer, I have been offered “free premium applications” by RIM.  What a scream! It might be more successful to take out an ad in the Wall Street Journal apologizing for RIM’s lame offer of compensation.  I probably spent four hours trouble shooting the problem at the time.  Oh, well.   It would also be interesting to see how many inquiries have been received by insurers lately about the availability of insurance against an outage of RIMs BlackBerry enterprise service. Not a good sign for RIM in the future.

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