April 18, 2007 — -- For some it was a blessing. For others, a curse.
Either way, for several hours Tuesday night into Wednesday, millions of BlackBerry users in North America were without e-mail because of a massive network failure.
Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry devices, has said very little about the incident except that the outage "may have been caused" by one of its operating centers going down.
The Waterloo, Ontario, company said it had 8 million subscribers worldwide as of March 3. About 1 million of those were added in the last quarter of 2006.
That's 8 million users in a world of 6.5 billion people.
Still, for those people who use a BlackBerry daily for business -- think investment bankers, lawyers and yes, journalists -- the outage was devastating.
From about 8 p.m. EDT last night until 7 a.m. today, users were without e-mail. While most users were back up by the morning, some people reported not coming online until late in the afternoon.
The device has been nicknamed "CrackBerry" because of its addictive nature for some people who can't seem to get away from their e-mail.
BlackBerry users checking messages while walking, riding the bus and even while driving have become commonplace sights. Not to mention those who turn away from a meeting, movie or sporting event to check messages.
Bob Cohen, a real estate consultant from Atlanta, was traveling on business in Reno, Nev., when he woke up without BlackBerry service.
"My blood ran cold," he told ABC News. "I was offline."
Others who suddenly found themselves without service felt "liberated."
For a few brief hours, they were free from their digital leaches.
The BlackBerry faces competition from devices such as Palm's Treo and handheld devices coming onto the market from Motorola and Nokia.
But BlackBerry still has a strong hold on the market.
Stockholders' initial response to the meltdown was that technological problems happen from time to time and that they still have faith in the company.
Shares of Research in Motion closed up nearly 2 percent Wednesday in trading at the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Keith Hampton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, said that people depend on devices, such as the BlackBerry, to stay in contact with business connections, and weaker social ties.
"Really close social ties -- those who give us warm hugs and a broad spectrum of support -- we know we maintain contact with them through a whole bunch of communication mediums," Hampton said. "We don't just e-mail our parents, our brothers and sisters."
E-mail allows people to talk to larger and larger circles of business contacts, and for those contacts, he said, "It can be devastating and difficult" when that form of communication breaks down.
"E-mail has opened up the opportunity to have much more instantaneous contact, to have much more brief exchanges than we did in the past and possibly to maintain a greater number of social ties than we ever have before," Hampton said.
But he called the idea of being addicted to a BlackBerry "ridiculous."
"You can't be addicted to communication," Hampton said. "We're all social animals. We want to communicate with those around us. And the BlackBerry is just one of many types of communication that help facilitate that."
By the way, Hampton uses a Treo.
In a message to technical support teams of subscribers, Research in Motion gave the following tips for how to fix your BlackBerry if it is facing lingering problems.