ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Outlook is Cloudy —

Well, well, well.

So you might have missed this piece of news, but this past week, if you owned a phone branded as a T-Mobile Sidekick, which itself was based on original work of the Danger Hiptop, then your phone’s data was all lost and if you power-cycle your phone, you will lose all your contacts, photos and other important data. Permanently.

That’s pretty awful.

So let me modify my previous sentiment:

FUCK THE CLOUD, BEFORE THE CLOUD FUCKS YOU.

Being the guy who gut-punched current presentation and marketing crap of “The Cloud” earlier this year, I’ve been a lightning rod for a spectrum of frustrations. Some are annoyed at this weird marketing term taking on such strength. Others are people who have glommed onto this marketing term and are hella pissed that some upstart fuck like myself is indicating in some way that they are charlatans or misinformed dupes. And some others are end-users who are worried about some of the concerns I have been raising and want more information. It is nominally less interesting than other mail I get, but it’s pretty important stuff, so I don’t mind being at the center of it.

Therefore, when things started really going to ass-town earlier this month for Danger/T-Mobile, I got communications from a lot of people. I’m still getting links and I am grateful to all the people who wanted me to know about this nightmare and what it was all about. I was also given vaguely privy information to what is “really” going on, and how some perfectly talented folks are not getting any sleep for quite a long time while the problem is being addressed.

The story, as I understand it from various sources who may or may not be as insider as they claim, is that this is a classic case of “no separate hot hardware backup during major upgrade”, resulting in a worst-case scenario when what was supposed to be a relatively smooth transition fell apart, cascading and knocking over all current data. Backups exist, I’ve been told, but obviously they are slightly out of date and probably don’t keep around every piece of data important to the end-users. And they will take quite a while to come back. Meanwhile, we are treated to people, regular and normal folks, who have been absolutely fucked over. This is the human side we probably tend to forget:

sidekick5
sidekickfail4

sidekickfail1

You should have a bunch of feelings when using computers. Excitement. Pride. Delight. Amazement. Curiousity. Yes, even frustration and anger. But you generally should not feel despair. You should not be feeling desperation. You really shouldn’t. An architecture and environment that could lead you into this situation, where you are helpless and wronged and did nothing but what you were told was right, and then punished quite severely, is very wrong. It is the opposite of what a computer and technology should do. And worst of all, by any of the information I’ve been given, it was avoidable – just more expensive to assure such avoidance. And expensive gets lost as an option, when you’re dealing with a cloud.

What we call The Cloud is about obfuscation, about blurring. It’s in the name of ease and convenience and about incredible savings on a number of columns in your galactic spreadsheet. Unfortunately, this marketing bullshit easily comes at the cost of service level agreements, error tracking, and accountability.

Oh sure, the worms have come out of the wood to make fun of people who owned T-Mobile Sidekicks, saying they shouldn’t have been with a “kid’s” phone instead of a grown-up phone or some other platform-related calling of the dozens.  These people are beneath contempt – all centrally located items, like, oh, telephones that rely on checking centralized servers, are prone to potential failures in the future. Failures that could affect everybody, even people who own some other brand of phone who are the type to point and laugh at others’ misery. Here’s hoping the hot guy/gal you gave your digits to was using a T-mobile, Mr. Jerkin’-it-on-Saturday-Night. They ain’t calling you back anytime soon.

And sure, I’ll be sure to get mails and comments from people who have hung their shingles on The Cloud to tell me that this wasn’t the fault of the Cloud and that the Cloud was actually down at the local pub sharing a pint with 39 buddies who The Cloud bought drinks for and so The Cloud is innocent. That’s what’s so great about something like The Cloud – a few tweaks of the words, a clever turn of phrase, and the bad part doesn’t apply to you and what you’re selling. That was something else, somebody else. Not your fault. No mea culpa required. Come buy our new Cloud service.

Remember lives could be very negatively affected by this outage and loss. People whose sales contacts or organization information or any of a number of critical phone lists were on these phones is gone. That can be devastating to a businessperson who relies on this list to get work done, or who stored photos, memories, messages on this platform. Sure, you can point here from the Magic Fucking Future and act like they were committing a sin by not syncing their data up every single night, but how’s your sink looking, motherfucker? Got any dishes in it?

Like Roger Boisjoly, I don’t take much pride in being “right”. What I want is for us to stop making these mistakes, to stop several terrible trends from continuing. It’s partially an engineering issue – syncing up data quickly and easily to several locations isn’t a terrible task and it certainly isn’t something to be ashamed of and hidden way up the food chain at the central servers. It’s also a social issue – data owned by users should be sacred, considered the highest calling in computer services, with people’s lives understood to be affected by every choice. It is often, instead, thought of as a business case – if we lose everyone’s data, what will it cost us? Right now it’s costing T-mobile plenty (they’ve halted sales of the Sidekicks), but how often has anyone within the paradigm of Microsoft/Danger/T-Mobile used the terms like “trust” and “caretaking” with relation to this data? Will they ever? Will anybody else? In a world full of fucksticks like Larry Halff who should have a restraining order from ever being in charge of user data again, you don’t know what the ethics/value system of the people in charge of your data are, and in this situation, the idea of something like the approach of what we call The Cloud is a step, no, a marathon run backwards. We’re better than this. We really are.

This is not a time, over here, for pointing and laughing. It never was. It’s a time for mourning. It’s a time to realize that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people woke up and had part of their lives ripped from them and had done nothing, nothing to deserve it. And to realize, with horror, how many people are walking around as we speak with pieces of their own lives hanging in a fragile balance with only one bad upgrade, one poor business choice, one missed phone call between them and losing it forever.


Categorised as: computer history

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14 Comments

  1. Ewen McNeill says:

    A quote from Leslie Lamport seems relevant: “A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable.”

    Reference: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/lamport/pubs/distributed-system.txt
    (from 1987)

    “The Cloud” appears to just be the latest buzzword for a distributed system. Relatively few of the problems with distributed systems appear to have been solved in the 20 years since that message was posted.

    Ewen

  2. Jim Leonard says:

    Your message is essentially “always have backups”. It’s really not The Cloud’s fault, unless you blame The Cloud for public perception. No need to bash the cloud.

    The Cloud is a marketing term for consumer-accessible datacenters, nothing more. There’s no new message here. Always have backups.

  3. Grimmtooth says:

    Quite simply, we need, and have needed, a simple means to back up our data to a PC. This has been one of my main frustrations with cell phones of all kinds since I got my first one. No backups.

    I used to use a Palm PDA. That’s the level of data backup I want. Not via the web, or some other circuitous route. I want a cable, from my PC to my phone, and a way to siphon the data off and put it back, on demand.

    I don’t give two hoots about the Cloud, but this isn’t about the Cloud. It’s about a missing feature that is common to the vast majority of cell phones out there.

    Full disclosure: I and my wife both have Sidekicks. Neither of us lost our contact info, so we don’t have an axe to grind in that respect (contact info on SIMM FTW).

  4. jen says:

    It sucks for all the people who lost data. But having worked in IT I also feel sorry for the engineers responsible for the data loss. Can you imagine how they must have shit their pants when they realized what had happened? That horrible sunken feeling that they must have felt in their guts?

    Due to a miscommunication I once formatted and reinstalled Windows on a clients computer. He had no backups and years of important data was lost. Personal data like pictures of his wedding and children’s births plus all of his work related data going back years. It is a horrible feeling and I can only imagine how theengineers at t-mobile feel.

    • Jason Scott says:

      Agreed. Having been in these situations, it’s sometimes a combination of not being able to bring up the possibility of what can go wrong, combined with having different groups making decisions. There are some very unhappy people right now, people who were woken up and told to fix the unfixable.

  5. LateBlt says:

    I saw the news stories on this when it was happening, and the instant I saw it, I thought “This is exactly what Jason was talking about with his fuck-the-cloud thing. Maybe he’ll even post about it!” Sure enough, a couple of days later, you did.

    It’s funny, I couldn’t disagree with you more in terms of how you feel about Wikipedia, but when it comes to the cloud, you take the words right out of my mouth. It’s kind of like that quote by Ben Franklin where he says that those who would give up liberty for the sake of safety deserve neither: I’m all in favor of computer networks, but people who would forgo their computers to have everything on the network deserve neither computers nor networks.

  6. fuzz says:

    I’ve somehow managed to get my basic nokia to sync my contacts with my gmail, which is all very convenient and lovely, but before I did the first sync I backed up all my contacts to a csv file.
    Backups people, backups.

  7. Church says:

    I’ve worked for companies that had nightly backups–and never bothered to see if the backups were working correctly. Fortunately, I kept my own.

    I’ve worked for a company that was constantly considering how they’d implement backups–meanwhile I was distributing data across systems.

    My personal system? I’ve been meaning to get around to that…

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that the Deaf-with-a-capital-D community adopted Danger early on, so that particular community is disproportionately affected.

    Fortunately, the NYT is now reporting that it may not all be lost:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/13/technology/companies/13sidekick.html?_r=1&nl=technology&emc=techupdateema1

  8. anon says:

    Jason you are right.

    The Cloud is a big business buzzword. The Cloud is _nothing_ new – it is just saving your data online. Period. Today partly it is a business concept with false promises, correct – because there is no 100% security at all with computers and computer data so far.

    People should always make backups of their data and store it at home and online, in their email account for example. Then when at your place goes something wrong you still have the data online – and reverse – when online something goes wrong you have your data at home.

    But you should always ENCRYPT your data in the first place when you store it online because you never know who has access to your data and who not.

    People shift their lifes more and more into the internet – and that is a general issue. It is not only about storing data – you can have the same problem on myspace too – if a datalost happens and all your “virtual friends” are gone.

    See, i mean you could save your friendslist from myspace at your local computer too, that would be wise – but who is doing this ? Probably not much people. Most people have no clue about the problems computer can raise. They wanna use these services and everything is fine.

    People must become aware of the general problems of the internet – and these problems are based on physics, simply said. Things can be destroyed and deleted so you have to keep them on different places.

    You could also print out your contacts or friendslist and so on .. and SAVE it on paper – paper can burn but if no fire happens you always have access to your data and a technical data loss can not happen.

    Dont trust the cloud. Period.

  9. anon says:

    You should generally save important documents on paper ( print them out ) – and if you can put them into a fireproof safe – or if you have the money buy a good (little) safe for your documents.

    Internet security is physically security because the internet and this world is a physical place and based on physics.

    And if you need an update of your paper ( maybe your contact list ) you dont have to print it out every time – you can also write the new contact down by hand, so simple.

    Remember : such data can NOT get lost in a computer problem, and this is nice and important.

  10. anon says:

    I think people should take care of their data for themself at first – so in this case storing all important data at home – as a general security help.

    Remember: it is YOUR data, you should NOT give others the charge for your data because if they fail then it was their fault – but if you fail it was just your fault.

    It is more easy to accept an own mistake i would say as if when others make a mistake and your data is gone forever maybe because of their fault.

    You can see it this way: if they make a mistake and your data is gone then your mistake before was to trust others with your personal data which normally only belongs to you – but that is just one half of the truth i know.

    This is a personal decision but people are also lazy today and for many it is just easy to give their data into the hands of other instead of thinking for themself.

    People have to understand the physics of the internet to understand and solve these problems – they have to take care but many dont have enough experience or knowledge too about the internet and its nature.

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