Lost in the Clouds

LOST IN THE CLOUDS by Scott Budman

Hardly a day goes by where I don’t get a pitch for something new involving “The Cloud.”  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.
Several hundred thousand people learned that the hard way recently, when they went to check their e-mail, facebook, phone contacts, or photographs on their Sidekick phones, and found the well completely dry.  All contacts gone, all images erased.  The culprit?  The once fluffy, happy, safe, Cloud. 
Well, let’s be honest.  The cloud doesn’t really exist.  It’s the latest tech industry term for the way we store information on computer servers, the machines that then send what we want back to us, when and where we want it.  Cloud computing has been credited with helping the environment (fewer machines to store more data), and making our high-tech world more efficient.  And, for the most part, it’s worked.  “Except,” as Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin told me, “when it doesn’t work.” 
And, as Michael Doonesbury once said, there are still a few bugs in the system.  Sidekick users found out, en masse, about how human error (or, as some are speculating, sabotage – but really, would someone sabotage a phone with not all that many users?)  can poke holes in the cloud.  But they’re hardly the first.  Recent outages hitting Facebook and Twitter were blamed on the cloud, each sending people of all ages scrambling for contacts, photos, e-mail, and up-to-date tweets they missed.
When I caught up with Ken Rosenberg, a Silicon Valley financial planner, he was holding his Sidekick loosely, telling me that four days worth of e-mails were gone, likely to never appear again.  “I do my business on this phone,” he said.  “Whenever I leave my office, all email gets forwarded, and those are contacts I can’t miss.”  Who knows how much business might have been lost because those emails never got through?  The email he did get, earlier that day, from Microsoft (which bought Sidekick maker Danger back in 2008), told him the contacts were likely gone forever, but offering up a web address where some contacts may – with a little luck – be recovered.
Predictably, there are already companies working to make your data safer.  I just got a call from a Belgian company called Nomadesk, that specifically targets leaks in the cloud.  Microsoft itself, still reeling from the server glitch that hit Sidekick users, promises that its next version of Windows, Azure, will safely back up data.  “Great,” says Bajarin, “but what does that say about what it’s been doing up to now?”  Good point.
Like most new technology, the cloud has yet to pass the Doonesbury test.  So be warned:  The cloud may seem safe, but then again, for a long time, so did Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, and Bernard Madoff.