Vodafone and Google: A question of trust
In today's ultra-connected world we are increasingly dependent on a few big technology firms to keep us online and look after data. So when anything goes even slightly wrong there is something close to panic. That's what happened yesterday when two giants, the mobile operator Vodafone and the biggest web bruiser of them all, Google, each suffered what might once have been brushed off as a minor stumble.
Vodafone's problems started in the early hours when a gang reportedly armed with sledgehammers bludgeoned their way into one of the company's facilities in Basingstoke in Hampshire. They damaged or stole some equipment - we're still not sure exactly what - and the result was that hundreds of thousands of Vodafone customers in southern England lost all their voice and data services for much of the morning.
A few years back they might have made a quick call to Vodafone, grumbled a bit, and waited for the service to be restored - as it was, around lunchtime. Not in 2011, when social media spreads information and consumer outrage within minutes. Vodafone says it immediately told the police about the incident - which happened between 0100 and 0200 in the morning. But it was not until after 0900 that a short and quite uninformative statement appeared on the company's website.
Reasonable enough, you might say - staff needed to get into work and find out what was going on before reacting. But in a 24/7 world where Twitter is alive with rumours and complaints from your customers, and any company, you need to move faster than that.
Then there were the probing questions. Why, asked many customers, was Vodafone's network so vulnerable to a single incident at one location? A good question, because the people who run giant data centres and similar facilities are always telling me about the principle of redundancy - if one link in the chain fails, it should not bring the network down because there will be back-up systems.
So I put that to Vodafone who responded thus:
"We have robust plans for dealing with network issues and traffic management, but this incident involved the physical theft of equipment which is a very rare occurrence."
Well a theft may be a very rare occurrence, but you would nevertheless think that a business the size of Vodafone had plans in place to deal with just such an event.
Vodafone's problem was local, but Google's issue with its Gmail service had greater significance for it's global business. Some Gmail users - about 0.02% of them according to Google - woke up on Monday to find their inboxes empty and their mail data apparently eradicated.
The cause, as explained in this Google blog post, was a software bug inadvertently introduced by the company itself during an upgrade of part of the service. Again,users asked how could this happen if, as the blogpost itself puts it, "we have multiple copies of your data in multiple data centers?"
Google says that, in rare instances, software bugs can affect multiple copies of data.
Now the search giant appears to have been much more deft than Vodafone in handling the communications side of this issue and Gmail users are being reassured that their data is being restored. But this still looks like a more serious problem because of the reputational damage to a growing area of Google's business.
In the early days of the Gmail service, when it was just another experimental add-on, an outage like this would have been an acceptable hazard of using something new. But Google is now marketing Gmail and other applications as a suite of professional tools that can compete with Microsoft's Office, and there is some evidence that this is now paying off.
We are being encouraged to put our data into "clouds" belonging to just a few giant businesses - Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook - with the promise that it will be both private and secure. But consumers are already suspicious of those promises after a number of disturbing incidents.
So every time a bug - or a few sledgehammers - disrupt customer connections to the online world, trust in these clouds will diminish a little more.