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Seattle Times, WA

Let's face it, technology can let us down

April 23, 2007, Seattle Times, WA

We have been hearing for years now that technology and the Internet will be available to us "on demand." Like water or electricity, we'll have access to it as we need it.

As the BlackBerry outage and the temporary slowdown of Intuit's TurboTax electronic tax filing systems showed, we're not there yet.

We're becoming more dependent on technology in our daily lives, but we're forever stuck with the feelings of frustration, fear, and vulnerability that come with knowing technology can fail us when we need it most. We seek peace of mind by having backups, but it isn't easy enough to do that.

The occasional outages and data losses remind us not to become too dependent on our digital lifestyles. As we store more of our precious treasures such as digital pictures on online storage sites such as www.flickr.com, we run a risk of a catastrophe.

Millions of BlackBerry users lost access to their messages early Wednesday. People filing their taxes electronically at the last minute overloaded Intuit's servers Monday and Tuesday.

We see the technology breakdowns in a lot of places. The security communications system wasn't fast enough at Virginia Tech. The White House has lost some e-mails relating to the firings of federal prosecutors. In February, a glitch at Dow Jones & Co. made some jittery traders wonder if the stock market was crashing. Even Intel, the tech giant, has had trouble locating the e-mails of top executives for an antitrust trial.

Web site outages are still common, particularly around peak events. During the days leading up to Valentine's Day this year, only two of ten major national Web retailers were able to keep their sites available 100 percent of the time, according to WebSitePulse, a service of Image Project in Orlando, Fla.

This is in spite of an ongoing shift to on-demand Internet servers, which are supposed to be good at offloading computer traffic from one machine to another. The big Internet server makers have been creating networks of machines that balance loads and back each other up. If one company can't handle all its traffic, it can offload it to third-party companies that specialize in handling traffic. Just as we see outages in the power grid after a century of working on it, we still see Web outages.

But at any given time, though, Web sites are usually working smoothly. For instance, major apparel Web retail sites are working more than 90 percent of the time, according to performance tracking company Keynote Systems in San Mateo.

But failures are still a big business. Exponent, the failure analysis company in Menlo Park, notched up $168 million in revenues in 2006 doing consulting work on post-disaster investigations and other post-mortems on big failures.

John Moalli, a vice president at Exponent and a professor of engineering design at Stanford University, says today's failures are due to improper design, bad manufacturing, or improper use.

"Failure is always with us," he says. "Reliability is getting better. But bad things are going to happen."

This means that we have to plan our lives around the idea that technology could let us down. You can set up multiple forms of communication. But just as in situations like earthquakes, it's hard to say if any of them will work when you need them most.

The encouraging thing is that a lot of people in technology recognize this problem. They have to design for everything from human error to material breakdowns and everything in between. Will they ever deliver rock solid technologies that live up to the product marketing messages? We'll see.

In the digital world, the lesson remains that we can't just depend on one technology.

Moalli carries two cell phones, two laptops, and a fair amount of paper to give himself peace of mind. Now where is that manual typewriter of mine?