For a company that makes its living out of people communicating, Etisalat has been surprisingly tight-lipped in the past few days. BlackBerry users experienced difficulties last weekend during a "routine upgrade process". It appears the upgrade, a software patch supposedly intended to maintain network quality, turned out to contain a bug that drained batteries, overheated handsets and left many users of the BlackBerry mobile e-mail system disconnected from their businesses. Some were literally stranded.
"The day mine crashed, I was in a deserted part of Dubai and really needed to call a cab," said Reuven Proenca, a public relations professional. "I couldn't call or message or e-mail, and the whole thing just reinforced the fact that we are all so dependent on our BlackBerries." When it comes to mobile users, it would be hard to find a more connected - and addicted - group than those who own a BlackBerry, meaning the fallout from the patch, and frustration with the slow response, emerged quickly.
But a lack of an explanation from Etisalat has left its customers confused. Even worse, there is widespread speculation that it is altogether something more than a "routine upgrade". Webloggers and programmers are suggesting the upgrade contains a digital eavesdropping tool that hacks the BlackBerry's famed e-mail security system, a programme far from the routine piece of network improvement that was communicated to customers.
"I know that sometimes you need to upgrade, and this has happened before. But one that kills my battery and spies on me? That was too much," said Karim Fayyad, a business consultant living in Sharjah. "I just want to get rid of it." The details surrounding the software, how many handsets it damaged and what exactly it was designed to do remain unclear. Aside from its call centre agents telling customers to delete the patch, there has been no discussion of what is wrong with the software. That is because the company has chosen to say nothing.
Etisalat does not lack the ability to talk to the public. It is one of the UAE's largest advertisers and it would be difficult to spend a day without seeing one of its promotions in print or on television. Its public relations machine is well oiled, putting out press releases daily through a team of experienced hands brought in from one of the country's most experienced PR operators, Asda'a. Despite formidable resources and a team of professionals, as customers and the media were looking for answers, it gave none. Instead, Etisalat found it more important to announce that its cable-laying ship, the Niwa, had returned from a mission to the east coast of Africa. "The best thing they could have done is handle the communications better," said a technology professional who asked to remain anonymous because his company works with Etisalat.
"Just understand the situation and start talking as soon as possible. The solution to the problem is easy - remove the application. The problem is, the more they stay silent, the more people will question and wonder and investigate. The less they talk, the more people will talk about it." Despite the poor timing of the press release, Etisalat has plenty to learn from the 89 sailors who manned the Niwa for its three-month voyage.
Most importantly, the true colours of a crew emerge in stormy waters, not smooth sailing. Customers quickly forget the special offers and new products launched in the past year, because this is simply what is expected of a modern, world-class operator. What really makes or breaks a team is how it behaves when help is really needed. An acknowledgement of the problem, explanation of its causes and effects, and discussion of the solutions is the best option.
The second lesson from the sailors aboard the Niwa is one of competence. Do not head to the coast of Africa with plans to lay 5,000km of undersea fibre optic cable unless you are absolutely ready to perform. And do not modify the operating system of thousands of complicated mobile phones, on which your customers spend thousands of dirhams each year, unless the upgrade is already tried and tested. While Etisalat gets more than its fair share of criticism from the public and the press - as do all former monopolies - its greatest strength is its technical competence. Things work, particularly when it comes to its mobile network, which is one of the most reliable in the world. Risking that reputation on an untested piece of software is a curious choice.
The final lesson to be learnt from the sailors aboard the Niwa is that trust is slowly gained and quickly lost. A captain who loses the confidence of his crew is in deep trouble, and a company whose customers do not believe what it is telling them will always, in the long run, be beaten by one whose customers do. When customers mutiny, they seldom come back. A closer look at the software patch sent out by Etisalat suggests it is made by an American company named SS8, which provides telecoms operators with software for "lawful interception and surveillance". SS8 recently acquired a UAE company and opened a Dubai office, run by a man who helped Etisalat set up its BlackBerry system in the first place.
Most countries have laws requiring telecoms companies to co-operate with law enforcement and security services in the monitoring and interception of communications. SS8 says its business helps companies meet these requirements, and if this was the case in the UAE, Etisalat was simply complying with local laws in pushing this software to its customers. This may be the routine event that Etisalat claim it was. However, until it explains what actually happened, how many will believe that the next routine network upgrade is what they claim it to be?