Pity the poor road warrior who tried to find his data on The Linkup, only to get this message when he logged in: "Unfortunately The Linkup service is no longer available. Please visit box.net for your storage needs." What's worse, the sales guy was on an extended trip through North and South America. That's a real story, told by one Jacob Sherman, "I just want my data," he said.
Of course he does. And so did the people and companies (such as Twitter) whose day-to-day operations were stymied last month by an outage of Amazon.com's S3 cloud storage service. G-mail was down for several hours last week, and then, of course, there was the embarrassing debut of Apple's MobileMe. In that case, the service was so new, and so few 3G iPhones were actually in the hands of users, that I suspect the number of people seriously inconvenienced was relatively small. But even so ...
Stuck with Office, and maybe safely so
When foul-ups like these happen, the only winner is Microsoft.
Here's what one angry user had to say: "Dear MS Outlook," Owen Schultz wrote, "I am so sorry about our breakup several years ago. I have been thinking about you a lot since then. Will you please consider taking me back? Just one more chance? I'm sorry about all the horrible things I said about you and your operating system. You were the best I ever had! MobileMe and I are finished!"
Remember, Office is still overwhelmingly popular, as measured by market share, despite noise from Google and other providers that claim to have cloud-based productivity apps that could replace the pricey suite. Over the years, there's been lots of discussion about storing data in the cloud, although it wasn't always called that. One big objection: "Suppose I can't get online?"
That used to be a pretty compelling downside, but now that bandwidth is plentiful, and a relatively cheap service connects your laptop or handheld anywhere there's cellular coverage, it's much less of a problem.
But then there’s a less tangible issue: trust.
I'm not a big fan of Microsoft software, but you know what? I don't worry about my Office data disappearing on me or inexplicably becoming unreachable. And corporate users don't have to worry (at least not too much) that there will be a widespread outage of Exchange servers.
Given the choice between Windows/Office/Exchange -- fault-filled, security-challenged, and annoying as they are -- and a cloud-based service that may or may not be there when you need it, the choice for business users is pretty darn obvious.
Sure, the variety of cloud computing that my colleagues and I have been writing about this year is an enterprise play. But the issue of trust is even more important on that level. I talk to a lot of IT execs in the course of my job, and I'm struck by how many have a serious interest in cloud computing. But as you'd expect, they are very cautious; seeing today's heavy-hitter cloud services like MobileMe, S3, and Salesforce, go down does nothing to overcome that caution.
Building trust is hard when services go offline
Salesforce.com, in many ways an early cloud provider, had some very public outages a few years ago. After a short period of denial, in which many tech and business writers (including me) happily beat on the company, Salesforce got its act together, explained what was going wrong, and why. The company quickly added a page to its public Web site, giving real-time information on the status of the service. And most important, it ironed out most of the early problems.
Apple could learn from that. Moreover, Jobs and company should know by now that launching an important data-related service before it is fully baked is foolish, arrogant, and above all contemptuous of its customers. (According to a post on the Macrumors site, MobileMe is now running about 96% of the time. Better, but hardly good enough.)
Jean-Louis Gassée, the long-time technologist and investor, likened the too-early launch to a game of chicken. "No one had enough brains and guts to risk humiliation, to raise a hand and say, 'Chief, we're not ready here, let's stop everything.' As a result, MobileMe badly crashed on launch," he wrote in his blog this week.
What a great point. It takes guts to raise your hand, but when you don't, it's the customer who suffers -- and Microsoft that wins.