SLOUGH, England (Reuters) - The closest most people can get to where millions of BlackBerrys stopped working is a grey office block, over the road from a discount golf superstore and a mobile hamburger van, in the town of Slough, an hour’s drive from London.
Inside the three-storey building, engineers have been racing against the clock to fix an outage that left customers on five continents without email or instant messaging for days. This is the European headquarters of Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the smartphones.
Stephen Bates, head of its British arm, made an appearance in the office car park to update the media on Thursday, speaking over the roar of buses, trucks and cars passing by on the main road to Heathrow Airport.
He paused as a passing truck driver wound down his window and shouted “BlackBerrys are rubbish.” An aide stepped in to say: “We’ve had a lot of that this week.”
“Thousands of people are working around the clock,” Bates told Reuters.
But with blinds down to keep out the early autumn sun and visitors barred from the reception area, little could be seen of their efforts in the company’s headquarters.
Tight-lipped staff used a side entrance away from waiting television crews. Security guards patrolled the neatly clipped beech hedges. The few BlackBerry staff who ventured out for lunch declined to speak to the media.
Requests to visit the computer data centre at the core of the crisis were firmly rebuffed. A RIM spokesman said the servers were not housed in the headquarters building and visitors could not see the site where the problems began.
“We won’t let people into the building. We have to protect the privacy of all employees,” the spokesman said, refusing for security reasons to even identify which of the large warehouses in the area houses their computers.
BlackBerry’s European hub is flanked by two pharmaceutical companies in near-identical buildings. It sits on a trading estate known to many Britons as the setting for the BBC comedy “The Office.”
The series, starring Ricky Gervais as a hapless manager in a paper-making company, mocked the tedium of corporate life in a town known for its many roundabouts and concrete car parks.
In one of thousands of Twitter messages poking fun at RIM, technology entrepreneur Alan Sugar said: “If the BB server fault is in Slough they need Ricky Gervais to sort it.”
Slough is the butt of many jokes among Britons. For example, comedian Jimmy Carr said of his hometown: “I grew up in Slough in the 1970s. If you want to know what Slough was like in the 1970s, go there now.”
Yet the town houses many multinationals’ European headquarters. Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC opened a European HQ in June. According to tech news website The Register, personal computer maker Dell also just decided to invest in a new data centre in the town.
Nonetheless, Twitter users lamenting the interruption of their BlackBerry services swapped updated versions of a 1937 verse by English poet John Betjeman in which he denounced Slough’s industrialisation with the line “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”
One of the 21st century versions said: “Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough, I can’t get Blackberry Messenger now.”
Additional reporting by Clare Kane, Editing by Louise Ireland and Sara Ledwith