Microsoft's Sidekick data catastrophe

A "code red cloud disaster"? Or something much more fiendish?

By Andrew Leonard

Published October 12, 2009 5:13PM (EDT)

The news that Microsoft has somehow managed to permanently lose the data stored online by tens of thousands of T-Mobile Sidekick smartphone users has the technology world in an absolute uproar. Beyond the immediate, baffling question -- How is it possible that the data was not backed up properly? -- there is a larger issue: What does this mean for the credibility of "cloud computing"?

Cloud computing refers to the model in which your data is stored online, in some vast server farm -- instead of on your desktop. Gmail or any other Web-based app is an example of the cloud computing model. Increasing numbers of us don't give a second thought to the idea of storing our photographs on Flickr or our documents at Google Docs and so on. But when a disaster of Sidekick proportions occurs -- your contact and calendar info, photos, etc., all gone with apparently no hope of recovery -- the calculus changes dramatically. It is, as InformationWeek's Eric Zeman dubbed it, "a code red cloud disaster." Sidekick users are furious, and T-Mobile is scrambling to make amends, and the very future viability of the Sidekick in the hotly contested smartphone market is in serious jeopardy.

Whom to blame? Danger, the company that created Sidekick, or Microsoft, which purchased Danger for $500 million 18 months ago? Felix Salmon theorizes that the fiasco came about in part because after Microsoft purchased Danger, the company buried the founders way down in the depths of the corporate bureaucracy. Salmon suggests that "It's pretty obvious that company founders aren't going to act with the same drive and sense of ownership when they're a tiny part of a monster organization as they did when they owned and ran their own shop."

But I have a competing theory. Traditionally, cloud computing has always been considered a threat to the classic Microsoft business model -- in which every desktop or laptop or netbook computer user is expected to purchase his or her own copy of Windows and Office. Maybe we should consider this a Machiavellian shot across Google's bow? What better way to defend the Windows/desktop franchise than to create a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt concerning the fundamental security of cloud computing?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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How The World Works Microsoft Smart Phones