Sidekick Disaster Shows Data's Not Safe in the 'Cloud'


If you own a T-Mobile/Microsoft Sidekick smartphone, I don't have to tell you this. But if you are among the millions who don't: on Oct. 1, literally every user of the Sidekick data service lost the private personal records – e-mails, notes, calendar entries, contacts, etc. -- they had stored on the system.

Initially, it was believed that information was lost forever. The official statement from Microsoft/Danger (the latter being the company that builds the Sidekick) and T-Mobile was that the data "almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure at Microsoft/Danger." Then, yesterday, Microsoft announced that it had managed to recover "most" of the lost data and blamed a "system failure in the core database and backup."

VIDEO: The company hopes to recover some phone numbers and photos.

Needless to say, the lawsuits have already begun: The Sidekick's 1 million users had a deep emotional (and often financial) investment in the device … and that loyalty had been betrayed.

T-Mobile tried to assuage all of those hurt feelings by offering users, by way of apology, a $100 gift card and one month's free data service. As you can imagine, that only made many users even more angry. A hundred bucks? For the hours it will take to reconstruct a lost contact list and full appointment book? A month's free service? For that last photo of grandma in the hospital – now lost forever?

My friend Scott Budman, the veteran tech reporter for KNTV-TV in San Jose, Calif., and the "TechNow" television series, has just written an interesting analysis of the Sidekick debacle. In it he suggests that, ultimately, this is a case of misplaced trust in the reliability of far-off servers operating in that imprecise, ineffable reality of "The Cloud."

"Hardly a day goes by where I don't get a pitch for something new involving 'The Cloud,'" he writes. "And, really, in a rough economy, what could be softer than a cloud? The banks have let you down, your house has crumbled in value, your CDs have all but stopped paying interest. But the Cloud? It's tech-friendly, safe, and always there to protect your personal data … except when it's not."

In other words, and I think Budman is right on this, we have a dangerous gap between consumers' expectations and what the supplier believes it is obliged to deliver. In this case, Sidekick users expected the data they put on their devices would be sent to some safe place in the computing cloud where it would always be protected as part of the contract with Microsoft and T-Mobile.

Apparently, those two companies thought differently; that their job was to provide the highest quality product and service possible, and to make a good effort to keep customer data secure – an effort that, it seems, did not include creating redundancies and backup files.

As I've noted before, almost every service scandal in the history of tech -- dating back to the Intel Pentium 'bug' of 1994, or even the delivery of 'dead' Apple III's in 1980 and HP 3000's in 1973 – has to do with a disastrous disconnect between what the purchaser believes he or she is buying and what the seller believes it is obliged to deliver.

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