Image: Screenshot of Apple's MobileMe e-mail program
Apple
A screenshot from MobileMe's e-mail program is shown on Apple's Web site, which also now includes a "status" page for users who had problems with MobileMe in its early weeks.
By
msnbc.com
updated 8/6/2008 10:20:29 AM ET 2008-08-06T14:20:29

In personal computing, it’s always good to have your stuff — documents, photos, music, video — at the ready, backed up, stored somewhere. These days that includes the “cloud,” but as some users of Apple’s new Web-based MobileMe service recently found out, the cloud can be a dark and frustrating place.

Even Web giants Google and Amazon.com occasionally have faced problems with their more-established “cloud computing” services, which rely on data centers around the globe to store, process and deliver information via the Internet. Just last month, some users of the free Google Docs word-processing program couldn’t access documents for around an hour on July 8, and Amazon’s S3 online storage service experienced outages for around eight hours on July 20.

Cloud computing is an exciting notion, and those kinds of inconveniences might not seem huge — until they happen to you.

Apple seems to have resolved most of the problems that left 1 percent of MobileMe customers angry and without e-mail for several days, and longer in some cases. MobileMe, which costs $99 a year, stores e-mail, contacts, calendars and photos “in the cloud,” Apple notes, and also provides 20 gigabytes of storage for each user.

“I was without e-mail from July 18 to July 28,” one MobileMe user wrote in a July 29 e-mail to msnbc.com, adding that he was unable to check his e-mail anywhere else because of the problem.

With Web message boards and blogs buzzing, on July 25 Apple made its first public statement about the debacle, and has since added some posts to keep users informed about MobileMe’s status.

“The day we launched MobileMe, we had a lot more traffic to our servers than we anticipated, with the result that access to the Web versions of the MobileMe applications … was temporarily unavailable,” wrote an Apple spokesperson in one posting.

“We’ve since added server capacity and tuned our software to scale better — i.e., behave more gracefully when traffic spikes.”

And here’s where the posting got really good (not): “We particularly regret to report the loss in the affected accounts of approximately 10 percent of the messages received between July 16 and July 18.”

So, if you were among the 1 percent who couldn’t get your e-mail, you also might have been part of an elite group whose e-mails went into a black hole, never to be seen again. It might be enough to push you over the edge — or at least off the cloud.

Thinking it through
“If you don’t think cloud computing through, there’s certainly plenty of things that can go wrong,” said John Pescatore, Gartner research vice president, who is also a security and privacy expert.

He said most of MobileMe’s problems were likely were tied to its launching the same day, July 11, as the iPhone 3G and a key software upgrade for existing iPhone owners.

“The applications had to be ready by that date, whether they were ready or not,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest part of Apple’s problems with MobileMe.”

It seems Apple CEO Steve Jobs doesn’t think it was such a good idea, either, to put MobileMe out there the same day as the new iPhone. Web site Ars Technica said it saw an Aug. 4 e-mail sent by Jobs to Apple employees, in which he said, in part, “It was a mistake to launch MobileMe at the same time as iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0 software and the (online) App Store …The MobileMe launch clearly demonstrates that we have more to learn about Internet services. And learn we will.”

Technology 'relatively new'
One of MobileMe's most innovative features is its ability to synch this data with a variety of devices, including the iPhone, iPod touch, Macs and PCs.

“There is a lot of promise for cloud computing, but the technology is relatively new,” said Rob Enderle, president of The Enderle Group, a consulting firm that studies technology trends.

“It works reasonably well for storage, but if you need it for communications, real-time 24/7, the reliability for these services is not there yet.”

Enderle said Apple additionally may have been hampered because “they’re not known for their servers. They have them, but they’re hardly the largest. They’re basically known for their devices — the individual things like computers, iPhones and iPods — stuff that exists in folks’ hands that never had to scale” to meet the volume of demand generated by a program like MobileMe.

There are other issues still up in the air when it comes to cloud computing.

Johannes Ullrich, chief research officer for the SANS Institute, a national organization that does information security training, research and certification, uses cloud computing when he uses Google’s Gmail, a free, Web-based e-mail service.

So do millions of others who use similar programs from Yahoo or Microsoft Windows Hotmail. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“One of the big security problems with online services — in particular, Google — is accidental data leakage,” Ullrich said.

“For example, many users accidentally mark their Google calendars (another free service) as public, and everybody is now able to search them,” he said. “You typically find sensitive information like conference calling dial-in numbers, or even bank account and PIN numbers online.”

The tradeoffs involved
Said Pescatore: “Both from a reliability and a security perspective, you trade away some reliability and some security, some safety, by using these free, cloud-based services rather than by doing it all on your own PC.

“For most consumers, Gmail, Yahoo mail and Hotmail, those have actually gotten pretty good from a security perspective. It’s really not much of a risk. The real issue is availability — the service might go out for two or three hours; you never know,” he said.

“The other thing is if something were to crash, or, say Google or Yahoo or any of these people have a fire and everything burns up — well, your photos are gone, your e-mail is gone, there are no guarantees.

“It’s really nice having free stuff,” Pescatore said, “but there is a cost.”

And even though MobileMe is not free, it is relatively inexpensive for the services it offers, once the bugs are worked out, and so long as those services are available to customers.

“For consumers, any of these Web-based programs, Gmail or Flickr — where you might store your photos instead of on your own computer — what you’re getting is a really powerful thing pretty cheap, right?” Pescatore said.

“And the old saying, ‘You get what you pay for,’ even in this Internet age, still holds. You should go into these things knowing you’re making a tradeoff: ‘OK, it’s going to be free, but there might be a day where there will be an outage, and I can’t use this.’ ”

Which brings us back to backups, especially for home users. No matter where you have your e-mail, digital photos, documents, videos and music — back them up, either on your computer and/or to an external hard drive.

Prices of backup drives are pretty reasonable — a 500-gigabyte external hard drive can be less than $150 — and well worth the peace of mind should a cloudy day come along.

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