Archive for November, 2008

Should we trust technology?

At the risk of sounding Asimov-ian, should we trust “the machines?”

Take my retired mother-in-law. She uses a computer daily: e-mailing her children and grandchildren, researching her frequent travel plans online. She’s relatively advanced for being introduced to the personal computer after sixth sevenths of her life has gone by.

Her issue is less one of technical savviness than simply of trust. She almost lost her hard drive once, including some digital photos. She’s now so afraid to download them to her PC and delete them from her camera’s storage card, that she’s convinced my father-in-law to purchase multiple storage cards to store all their photos. When one gets full, they just start another. In her mind, it’s the lesser of two evils.

I laughed at first, then got annoyed that she didn’t trust technology and wasn’t taking advantage of it (my tech snobbery bubbling over). You’d think Google, Facebook and Twitter would be on my side, but in fact, they’re validating my mother-in-law’s fears.

In less than a week, Google’s Gmail suffered two mass outages, as frustrated users sent sales of replacement keyboards and Rogain up sharply. Google burned up some goodwill this week, and reminded everyone that nothing is failsafe. Worse, it hurt its credibility promoting the next big thing – cloud computing – where people use applications and software, like office applications, over the Internet instead of being hosted on individual PCs. When the cloud gets hazy or disappears, or the connection is broken, and there are multiple fail points, then the justification and cost savings for cloud computing goes up in smoke.

Ironically, much of the complaining about Gmail’s outage could be found on micro-blogging application Twitter, which itself is approaching legendary status for its frequent outages. A VC cash infusion to Twitter operators this spring was supposed to correct the technical flimsiness, but hiccups and whining persists. Twitter’s infamous fail whale is becoming the poster child for unreliable technology.

As more people live their lives online, posting personal videos and photos and information on social networks, is there any confidence that the content will be available, always, when we need or want? Or should a small company or entrepreneur trust cloud computing, leaving business-critical functions partially in the hands of someone else whose servers may or may not collapse or be hacked some day?

The $5-billion boo boo

Many companies I consult with are still unsure about influence of  “social media” and the online world. Mostly they’re unsure about the degree of impact on them, their people, products/services, brand and ultimately, their reputation.

In short, I tell them the online world, and the rise of social media, is a phenomenon they ignore at their own peril. And that the impact is real and tangible. Glaring examples pop up frequently. The latest involves one incident with two “boo boos:” the first refers to a heart attack, the second, more importantly, refers to the fact it was misinformation.

Apple Inc.’s share price plunged, shaving $5 billion its market capitalization in three hours, in early October when someone anonymously posted a story on CNN’s iReport citizen journalism website. The post said a “reliable source” (does anyone quote unreliable sources?!) saw Apple CEO Steve Jobs admitted to a hospital with a heart attack. With Apple’s success largely dependent upon Jobs (and with his appearance and health the subject of speculation in 2008), skittish investors responded by bolting from Apple stock. It took a few hours before the notoriously closed-mouthed Apple (and Jobs) confirmed that the post was not true, but by that time, word spread quickly online. The SEC has since identified an 18-year-old as the poster, and are investigating to determine if it was a prank or if he profited from the post.

The veracity of the story is less relevant than what it demonstrated: the speed and reach of the online world can have dire consequences to your business or organization. Here’s why:

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Immediacy. The Internet operates real-time. You don’t have to wait for the newspaper to be published or for the reguarlly scheduled 6 p.m. TV broadcast to get your information. The posting of information is instantaneous and 24/7, as connections to the Internet become more ubiquitous and simpler (from PCs, wireless devices, iPhones, smart phones, etc.). At the same time, accessing the information (blogs, discussion forums, etc.), photos and videos is just as immediate and can quickly gain momentum in seconds and minutes, not hours and days.

Reach. Unlike a local newspaper, the online world is not restricted by physical geography and distribution. Information in a newspaper will reach only as far as the paper carrier can throw it; a movie or video only to those in the theatre. In the online world, anyone connected to the Internet globally can access that information. People you didn’t expect, or even want, to know about certain information are only a mouse-click away. Consider that a local newspaper column is read by thousands, but an influential blog or video-sharing site, with it’s “social” component, can be viewed by tens of millions. Your information is not just in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.