Failover shortcomings seem to be the Achilles heel in the efforts of Research in Motion Ltd. to win the battle with Apple Inc. over whether the BlackBerry or the iPhone will be the smart phone of choice as business and personal applications converge in the mobile device market.

Failover is the capability to switch over automatically to redundant or standby servers or networks when failure hits without warning. Ideally this happens so seamlessly that users are not affected and don’t even notice. Networks with failover capability have their servers running in high-availability clusters located in different geographic locations. The concept of server farms has been used for years by powerhouse computing platforms like Google, where literally thousands of servers are spread all over the world on separate grids. This speeds up the delivery of search results as users access Google worldwide via the most efficient telecommunications backbone (i.e. the closest, fattest pipe). It also makes Google much less likely ever to go down unexpectedly.

RIM has experienced several system-wide failures over the last couple of years. The most recent occurred just a few weeks ago. While no doubt RIM has plenty of failover capabilities within its data centre at Waterloo, Ontario, the problem is that it only has one data centre. With a slew of patent infringement problems hitting RIM from the United States, at one point it might have seemed wise to keep its servers out of the U.S. But aiming at the North American market, it could still expand its platform into clusters running on separate grids inside Canada.

This issue needs to be addressed by RIM more and more urgently as it expands its user base beyond a core of CrackBerry business users into the area that Apple previously has dominated with its iPod, being music and pop culture. To be the platform of choice for the masses, RIM must listen closely to what they are saying and what they are being told. Entertainment wars tend to be decided by public opinion, represented by a huge number of small voices over the Internet on blogs and social networks, which together can be overwhelming forces of change.

Coming out of the iPhone corner of the ring, with a lot of credibility in the area of consumer technology, Steve Jobs of Apple recently has gone on the attack and his comments seem valid. As reported by the Globe & Mail today,

“Every e-mail message that’s sent to a RIM device or from a RIM device goes through a NOC [Network Operations Centre] up in Canada,” Mr. Jobs said, according to a report by Bloomberg news service. “That provides a single point of failure, but also provides a very interesting security situation.”

RIM’s response, reported in the same article, seems muted, refusing to acknowledge Apple by name when asked. Full disclosure – I own and use a BlackBerry – and I think it’s got great potential to expand into an all-purpose mobile communications and content-delivery device. However, as RIM lines up content providers in talks about partnering for its network, RIM needs to bear in mind the strong culture of exclusivity in the entertainment world. Everyone likes to line up with a winner. A winner needs to anticipate the market. The market is the people. They are passionate and opinionated and don’t like the idea of their entertainment being unavailable, unexpectedly, ever.