Sony's leap year bug
It could hardly be a more disastrous message to send to your customers - "Please switch off our state-of-the art product and stop using it now!" But that was what Sony said to hundreds of thousands of users of its PS3 games console yesterday.
The problem, which affected all users except those with the latest "slim" version of the console on sale since last September, first surfaced yesterday morning. Players trying to sign in to the PlayStation network ended up seeing an error code. Worse, they then found they could not launch games and lost their trophy data - in other words, it looked as though hours of play had simply been wiped out from the console's memory.
Gamers responded very speedily, bombarding specialist blogs and the mainstream media with complaints. In these socially-networked times companies have to respond to problems within hours - and to be fair Sony was pretty quick off the mark. Here's how Playstation Europe used its Twitter account to keep players informed:
"We're aware of people having PSN connection issues. We're looking into it and will keep you updated. Thanks for your continued support."
"New Post: PlayStation Network Status Update. http://bit.ly/c9La92"
"Rest assured, we've many people working on fixing this issue. As soon as we have some news, we'll let you know"
"Please don't trust info regarding this issue unless from an official Sony source. On Twitter this means @PlayStationEU and @SonyPlayStation."
"We will be updating you the second we have some news."
"Here's our latest statement on the PSN issues. We'll update you further when a fix is available. http://bit.ly/cjDYV9"
It looked at first as though this was a network problem, something to do with the fact that games consoles are no longer just pieces of dumb electronic kit sitting at home alone but are out their on the web "talking" to other machines and to the great central Sony server in the clouds.
I'm currently working on a radio programme about the future of the web, and computer scientists have been painting a picture for us of a "web of things" where every object, from a bus, to a heart monitor, to products on supermarket shelves is online and operating almost independently of humans.
"Aha!," I thought as I went to bed last night. "This is what happens when the web of things goes wrong. The machines stop working and everything grinds to a halt." But I've awoken to a rather different story. It turns out that what Sony was suffering from was its very own Millennium Bug, just 10 years and two months late.
The dumb internal clock thought 2010 was a leap year, so decided yesterday was 29 February instead of 1 March, causing consoles to have a nervous breakdown when they talked to a network which knew the right date. Here's Sony's statement in the early hours of Tuesday:
"We are aware that the internal clock functionality in the PS3 units other than the slim model, recognized the year 2010 as a leap year. Having the internal clock date change from February 29th to March 1st (both GMT), we have verified that the symptoms are now resolved and that users are able to use their PS3 normally. If the time displayed on the XMB is still incorrect, users are able to adjust time settings manually or via the internet."
So PS3 players have been caught up in a rather old-fashioned computer comedy rather than a futuristic disaster movie. And remember, the latest version of the console was not affected. Perhaps the web of things will give humans - or rather corporations - more control of machines rather than less.