In The Clouds — Part 4

CloudI continue to be optimistic — as described in prior stories — about Cloud Computing. A week or so ago, however, a major network outage gave me a cause for pause in enthusiasm. My Internet service provider, Comcast, began having problems at 5 AM in the morning. More than twelve hours later there was still a major outage in the area. No TV, no Internet connectivity, and no telephone dial tone since I use Vonage. Fortunately, the iPhone provides phone service and a backup to the web but it is not as full function as the PC. It is nice to have a large flat screen and full-sized keyboard. On the one hand I am happy that all my documents, email, contacts, calendar, music, and pictures are backed up in various clouds but on the other hand it is not so nice to not be able to get to them from the PC. As previously discussed, some applications — like Quicken and Dreamweaver — require the PC.
Comcast is great as long as things are working but when things go awry they are terrible. A recent survey on reputation by Harris Interactive put Comcast at #56 out of 60 companies. (See the article from Wired magazine called The Dark Lord of Broadband Tries to Fix Comcast’s Image). A free market with a lot of competition would drive such a company out of business or to higher rankings. Unfortunately, in the U.S. we do not have much competition thanks to the FCC and legions of lobbyists at Comcast and AT&T and Verizon, The Comcast call center system is smart enough to take the 10-digit phone number you key in and tell you that there is “an outage in your area”, but if you persist through the call center menus and reach a person they will first ask you for your 10-digit number — the same one you have already keyed in. The person I spoke to was very nice but had no other information other than “technicians are aware of the problem and are diligently working on it”. No estimate of expected restoration of signal but “it usually isn’t more than a day”. Great. The final comment was “thanks for using Comcast“. I said I wish I could. In some ways Comcast is a 21st century communications company but when you have service issues they are a 1970’s cable monopoly. Vonage, on the other hand has great customer service. Turns out the Vonage modem went bad recently also. The support rep overnighted a new modem at no charged and called me several times to follow-up to make sure I received it and had it working properly.
The Comcast outage lasted more than 50 hours. There were no follow-up calls nor an available status at any time. Fortunately, outages such as this do not happen very often. I can’t remember the last one — a couple of years at least. I did have a Verizon EV-DO card for backup and while traveling but between the iPhone’s increased 3G and WiFi coverage, plus Verizon’s $60+ dollars per month cost and less than great service, I recently cancelled the service. At some point Google Gears will provide a way to have local copies of your email and documents.This will allow you to create emails and edit or create documents and then synchronize them when you get connected.
The bottom line is that things break. Moving into the clouds moves the exposure of computer breakdowns in the hands of Google et al but getting between your computer and their requires reliable communications. The communications path includes modems, local networks in your house or business and utility poles which are vulnerable to ice storms. Having an iPhone replaces my modem and local area network with a 3G tower about 2 miles away. At the bottom of the tower is a shed full of equipment. Fortunately, all equipment is getting more and more reliable. The main dependency in the end is having enough competition to motivate the providers to keep their equipment up to date.