THIS WEEK IN TECH

Sidekick Snafu: The Data Saved and the Damage Done

T-Mobile’s Sidekick users had a pretty rough time this week thanks to a mistake that first looked enormous but eventually was pretty much fixed, though with no small amount of worry and strife in between. An unfortunate series of events caused a major inconvenience for users of the smartphone, and it might have you thinking twice before entrusting a whole bunch of data to a cloud service without first making a backup copy to keep.

When you save data on your mobile device — a new phone number, a calendar entry, etc. — where is it stored? It might reside on the phone’s built-in memory, and that’s fine, except that you might lose it or break it. You might have set it up to back up data in the cloud — in other words, on servers maintained by a company in the business of safekeeping people’s personal data. Sounds safer. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to store certain kinds of data there exclusively and not on your device at all.

That’s the route the Sidekick is designed to take — save users’ info on remote servers, not on the device. That strategy has turned into a nightmare for Danger, the aptly named Microsoft subsidiary that hosts Sidekick data. Danger stores users’ address books, calendars, to-do lists and photos — until suddenly it doesn’t. A disaster reportedly related to a data center upgrade zapped a whole lot of that sort of information last weekend. No problem, those kinds of operations have backup servers, right? Well, they were also wiped clean.

Did I mention this was also a nightmare for Sidekick users? The information they lost basically amounted to their master databases of friends, family members and associates, not to mention photos and emails they may have wanted to save. If you know any Sidekick users, you may have already gotten emails from them asking you to give them your phone number again — that is, if they happen to remember your email address, because those were lost too.

Not all Sidekick users suffered equally. Those who made a habit of keeping their own backup address book could at least re-enter that information, piece by piece. And some users who didn’t give their phones hard reboots didn’t lose anything, because their phones didn’t ask the wiped-out Danger servers for an update.

T-Mobile said earlier in the week that the situation was almost totally hopeless, but it changed course later and said some data might be retrievable after all. Still, some users believed they were totally out of luck, and they were very understandably livid. T-Mobile posted an FAQ to talk them through the process of finding out if they lost anything and figuring out how to protect what they still had left. It also suspended sales of all Sidekick phones and burned through all the variations of “we’re sorry” it could dig out of a thesaurus, even though it insisted the whole debacle was Danger’s fault.

Apologies only go so far when you’ve basically ruined your customers’ stuff. Money might talk a little louder, but what’s your data actually worth? At first, T-Mobile priced it at 20 bucks — it gave users a month of free data service. No, not free phone use, just the data part of the plan — you know, to email all those people whose email addresses were lost. Users cried out “lame!” almost in unison, so T-Mobile upped the ante to $100. But that’s not $100 cash — they didn’t want their customers running out and using that money to buy a new iPhone or Palm Pre or something. It was store credit. It could only be spent on some kind of T-Mobile thingy.

The whole situation was looking pretty bleak for T-Mobile until later in the week, when some really surprising news surfaced — Microsoft rolled up its giant sleeves and took a monkey wrench to the problem, and reported that most users would get their data back after all. I’m sure a lot of Sidekick users are relieved to have their stuff back, but that’s after they were given A) the aggravation of being told their data was lost forever, B) very little in the in the way of explanation as to why it happened, C) an insultingly small compensation offer, and D) a week’s worth of wasted time trying to put all that info back together themselves when it turns out they didn’t have to. Falls pretty far south of customer satisfaction.

Even though Sidekick users may be back to normal pretty soon, I think anyone who’s wanted to escape a T-Mobile contract without paying a penalty has plenty of ammo to work with now.


Listen to the podcast (13:34 minutes).


Nice Week for a Bug

While Sidekick users were storming T-Mobile stores with pitchforks in-hand, Apple was having a screw-up all its own, and was no doubt happy for the distraction. The bug that Snow Leopard users have reported eats data too, only it doesn’t do it on such a massive scale.

The bug plays out like this: Sometimes, users who log into a guest account first and then log into a regular account find all their data missing and their accounts completely reset. It’s sort of like the OS starts seeing everyone as a guest user with limited privileges — even the person who owns the computer. It seems this bug has a very arrogant personality.

Anyway, Apple has reportedly acknowledged the bug, and it’s a safe bet they’re working on a fix. And the sheer volume of people complaining about this bug sort of has a silver lining to it. If nothing else, it shows how many people are actually using Snow Leopard.

Any complex piece of software like an entire full-bodied operating system is bound to have a few bugs, and the ones that make it into the final release can only be flushed out over time during real-world use. More real-world users means more grousing when a flaw pops up and a stronger likelihood of an early fix.

Yours to Keep, but Not to Jailbreak?

When you buy a product — any inanimate object, really — you generally have the right to change it as you see fit. Buy a new house and put in some sweet shag carpeting if you like, or have a pair of 15-inch subwoofers installed in your little Geo Metro, if that’s your thing.

But when you get into technology and software, things might get a little murky. For instance, if you buy an iPhone, do you have the right to mess around with its firmware? Can you tinker with it in order to make it run applications that Apple has not approved for sale at its App Store? The process is called “jailbreaking.” Apple hates it, but hackers love it — there are a lot of them out there, and every time Apple pushes out a new iPhone software update, the really good ones get together to figure out a way to crack it wide open. They usually come up with something within a few days.

Apple has been fighting those guys for a while, using both legal and technical strategies. Legally, it’s claimed that jailbreaking phones violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. On the technical side, it’s reportedly started shipping a new version of the iPhone 3GS that uses a new boot ROM that resists jailbreaking. It’s a small but deep-seated change that could render all jailbreaking tools that hackers have distributed obsolete.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been a vocal proponent of iPhone owners’ right to jailbreak, but it isn’t too concerned about Apple tweaking its product to keep hackers out. Apple can design the things however it sees fit. Groups like the EFF are much more concerned about the legal precedent that could be set if Apple gets its way with its DMCA argument. Also, some iPhone hackers have proven to be incredibly crafty, and it’s way too early to tell if this boot ROM mod is a real lockout or just another temporary obstacle.

League Rules

It looks like the FCC is honoring AT&T’s request to take a long, hard look at Voice, the Google application that ties all of a user’s various phone lines into one number and provides services like texting and low-cost international calls.

The motivation, it seems, is jealousy. AT&T is irritated that Google Voice isn’t playing by the rules telecoms have to obey even though it’s behaving just like a telecommunication service, according to AT&T’s view of the situation. Meanwhile, Google insists that it’s not a telecom service at all; it’s a software application, and the same rules don’t apply.

So what rule are they arguing about? The rule that says if you’re a telecom, you need to connect calls even when it’s abnormally expensive to do so. In some of the less-populated areas of the U.S., the phone systems are dominated by local carriers that charge huge termination fees and maintain profitable relationships with adult chat lines and free conference calling services, resulting in so-called traffic pumping to drive usage. When a user of a major wireline service — like AT&T — calls a user of one of these strange little outland carriers, it costs AT&T a lot more than your average call. But they can’t refuse the connection — FCC says so.

On the other hand, Google Voice blocks calls to these carriers, and AT&T thinks that’s not fair. Google says, oh no, it is fair, because we’re not a traditional phone service at all — Google Voice is a software application, so that rule doesn’t apply. If it did, Google says, it might not be able to offer Voice for free.

So now the FCC will try to make up its own mind on what exactly to call Google Voice, and perhaps in the process it’ll figure out some ways to update regulations to better address reality. A lot’s changed since the Telecom Act of ’96.

Some Spit With Your Spam?

There’s a lot of garbage on Twitter, but is any of it really spam? If you want to get literal, spam is really a specific sort of unsolicited email described in the CAN-SPAM act. Tweets aren’t email at all, and if you don’t want to get messages from a certain Twitter user, you can just quit following that person.

When you unfollow someone, though, you might consider using Twitter’s new “report as spam” button to do so. That’ll boot the person from your following list and alert Twitter that the account has been acting spammy lately.

Twitter spammers have actually earned their own nickname: “spitters.” Spitters create fake Twitter profiles, follow tons of people at random in the hope of getting a bunch of follow-backs, then start spewing tweets that resemble the stuff you find each time you clean out your email spam filter: links to porn sites, offers for pills you hopefully don’t want or need, etc. Sometimes these profiles even use stolen pictures of real people to try and look more legit.

By clicking “report as spam,” you’ll unfollow that person and flag down a Twitter admin. And it’ll actually be a real person who reviews the case, not an automated bot. That’s good, because there’s a fine line between spam and legit advertising, and advertisers may turn out to play a big part in Twitter’s business plan if it ever gets around to earning a buck.

There’s Something About Twitter

On the other hand, that buck might actually come from data. Twitter is reportedly in talks with both Microsoft and Google — separately, of course; can you imagine those two sharing a room without something violent happening? The deal being discussed would license the microblogging site’s rich store of data, according to The Wall Street Journal‘s All Things Digital blog.

The nature of the supposed deal is very much up in the air — could be anything from up-front payments to revenue-sharing schemes, according to All Things D. And what do the sites get in return? Google and Microsoft’s Bing search engine are both very much interested in what people are talking about and what topics are being discussed right now.

Or possibly Google wants to draw Twitter into its giant stable of free Web apps, and Microsoft is just giving it a run for its money. Or maybe Bing wants to leverage Twitter to give it more power in targeted advertising. Perhaps both want to license Twitter’s technology to offer a similar service.

Rumors are such fun. Google’s huge, Bing’s hungry and Twitter’s hot, so we could just go on like this all day. I’ll spare you — moving on.

Movin’ On Up

Although HP is still the leader in worldwide PC shipments, Dell suffered a painful drop from second to third place last quarter, according to recent figures from IDC. There to pick up the slack was Acer, which now has the second spot. The Taiwanese vendor grew 25.6 percent year over year in the last quarter, while Dell’s sales dropped by more than 8 percent. HP grew 9.3 percent.

So what’s Acer doing right? Distribution, for one thing. Over the last two years, it’s taken in E-Machines, Gateway and Packard Bell. None of those were very huge name brands to begin with, but roll them into one, and their combined sales and distribution channels will put you all over the map. Dell, on the other hand, is still relearning how to walk when it comes to retail.

Acer is also being given credit for attacking the netbook market just as demand began to ramp up. Keep in mind, these market figures that give Acer the No. 2 spot came out about a day after Michael Dell took netbooks down a peg in a speech he gave. Even though Dell the company does sell a line of netbooks that bear the man’s name, he said that customers are often left unsatisfied with their smaller screens and limited performance.

Finally, Acer seems to know what it’s doing in marketing, if you ask J.P. Gownder at Forrester Research. He said, “Acer has been innovative in the way it thinks about marketing. They have done the intelligent thing, like cobranding — think of the Acer Ferrari. And using other brand names as needed, as well as making the right acquisitions, helped their ascent.”

Now all Acer has to do is build a Web site that’s worth a damn.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

TechNewsWorld Channels