Fast Forward: Sidekick Users See Their Data Vanish Into a Cloud

Sidekick users have options for backing up data that's still on their phones, but it's not an easy process.
Sidekick users have options for backing up data that's still on their phones, but it's not an easy process. (By Charles Krupa -- Associated Press)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A server meltdown over the weekend wiped out the master copies of personal data -- including address books, calendars, to-do lists and photos -- accumulated by users of T-Mobile's formerly popular Sidekick smartphone.

This computing calamity allows Sidekick owners only a faint hope of backing up the information currently on their devices, and none of recovering anything they'd trusted to online storage. And it leaves T-Mobile and the operator of the Sidekick's data service, a Microsoft subsidiary formerly known as Danger Inc. -- oh, the irony! -- with serious explaining to do.

A statement on T-Mobile's site phrased things a little more bluntly than the average exercise in corporate contrition: "we must now inform you that personal information stored on your device -- such as contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists or photos -- that is no longer on your Sidekick almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure at Microsoft/Danger."

The statement went on to instruct Sidekick users with data surviving on their phones to avoid "removing the battery or letting their battery drain completely, as any personal content that currently resides on your device will be lost." (An update Monday night expressed a little more optimism: "Recent efforts indicate the prospects of recovering some lost content may now be possible.") A frequently-asked-questions file contains a handful of suggestions, such as copying a Sidekick's contacts list to its SIM card, while a third-party site outlines a laborious process by which you can e-mail your contacts list and notes to your computer, one person and one file at a time.

This isn't the first time a Web service has crashed and left its users without access to data stored "in the cloud," as Web-services evangelists like to describe their approach. Earlier this summer, users of Google's Web-hosted e-mail, calendar and documents applications were shut out of their data for part of a day.

But it is one of the few times a cloud-computing vendor didn't have offline or off-site backups that could survive a server implosion -- even though the Sidekick's design leaves users without any easy way to copy their data to their own computers, and even though Microsoft and Danger should have thought to run an extra backup cycle when a bout of service glitches set in a week before Sidekick data vanished down the bit bucket.

It's one thing for a distracted, inexperienced person at home to forget to back up data until it's too late. It's another for a company with the resources of a Microsoft to make the same mistake.

This oversight has observers stunned, infuriated or both. Among the million or so Sidekick users, reactions have alternated between outrage and grief . . . make that mostly outrage.

Cloud computing brings advantages such as access anywhere and low costs per user that should help it survive this disaster. Cloud vendors can do this trend and their customers a favor, however, if they don't just document how users can take their data with them (as Google has begun to do) but work to make that as easy and fast as possible.

But Microsoft -- which is placing its own expensive bet on cloud services with its upcoming Azure program -- must be regretting the $500 million or so outside sources estimate it spent to buy Danger in 2008. Not only has that acquisition failed to yield a Microsoft-optimized Sidekick successor (even as Danger alumni have gone on to do good things with Google's Android and Palm's web OS mobile-phone software); now this fiasco, combined with its woeful Windows Mobile 6.5 software, can only make for some awkward moments the next time Microsoft tries to sell a wireless carrier on a new smartphone platform.

T-Mobile, in turn, is already getting kicked in the teeth for this epic failure. Its "Stick Together" motto now reads more as a futile plea to Sidekick users who are understandably running to the exits, and for whom it will have little choice but to waive any early-termination fees.

As for Danger and the Sidekick itself, one word suffices: goodbye. The Sidekick had already seen its prospects dim, as its once-impressive software stagnated over the past couple of years, but this kind of failure can kill a product outright. Most likely, the only further contribution the Sidekick can make is to serve as a warning to others: backup now, or suffer later.

E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. A version of this ran first on the Faster Forward blog; read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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