Guy Vs. Guy: What Should Users Learn From the Sidekick Data Disaster?

Last Updated Oct 21, 2009 10:14 AM EDT

Welcome to Guy Vs. Guy! In this recurring feature, Rick and Dave square off on the business and technology issues of the day. This week's topic: The startling, sudden, and nearly disastrous loss of data on T-Mobile Sidekick phones. Obviously someone screwed up, but do users share some of the blame? Who's ultimately responsible for protecting your data?

Rick: So by now most people have heard that thousands of T-Mobile Sidekick users have lost all their data, with little to no hope of getting it back. (Or so it seemed when we first started writing this. Now it appears that a recovery is indeed underway.) Ouch. This was the result of a server crash -- and Microsoft owns the Sidekick data service that owns the server. Because this is America and we're all about finger-pointing, Microsoft is already getting the brunt of the blame. But whose fault is it really?

Dave: That's one of the most meaningless questions I've ever been asked. Heck, it's not only inscrutable, but also totally irrelevant. Here's the deal: Hitachi actually did the work on the botched server upgrade. If you're looking to pin responsibility on someone for a plumbing disaster, you can't get much more responsible than the person that turns the wrench, right? But, well, responsibility also flows uphill. Microsoft outsourced the work, so they should take responsibility. Except that ultimately, it's T-Mobile's product. They are the face the customer sees and the ultimate hot seat of responsibility. So, there you go. And, err, what's the point of assigning blame, exactly?


Rick: My point, and I do have one, is that the user must accept some responsibility when his data goes missing, regardless of the cause. I'm not saying screwed T-Mobile users shouldn't be ticked about what happened, but they should have had a fallback plan in place. A dump to the desktop. An online backup. Hard copies of their data. Keeping all your important stuff in one place -- in this case, the cloud -- is a recipe for disaster, and frankly I'm surprised something like this didn't happen sooner. What we've got here is a cautionary tale, not just about smartphone data, but about cloud computing in general.

Dave: So, you asked that question simply so you could say it's the user's fault his or her data got toasted?

Rick: Wow, good comeback. Did you even read the previous paragraph? What I'm saying is that the user has some responsibility for protecting his data. To put it in terms even you can understand, it's like keeping all your legal documents in a filing cabinet in your house. If Microsoft comes along and sets fire to your house, that's obviously their fault -- but you should have kept copies somewhere else just in case of such a disaster. Obviously you were never a Boy Scout, but you might want to adopt their motto: be prepared. Anyone who keeps all their data eggs in one digital basket is risking catastrophe.

Dave: Nonsense. I keep all my real-life eggs in the exact same container and in 20 years, have never had any sort of egg-tastrophe. Likewise, if Molly Phone-Buyer (she hyphenates her maiden name) buys a phone that happens to store all of its data in the cloud, is she expected to understand the subtleties of how that technology works and proactively invest in some sort of backup plan? Perhaps she should take some sort of course at the learning annex that teaches which kinds of phones store data locally, which store in the cloud, and which store locally but also back up to the cloud. That's asking a lot, don't you think?

Rick: And by your logic, Joe Home-Buyer should just go ahead and lock in that $500,000 mortgage, even though he makes $52,000 a year. Because how can he be expected to understand the subtleties of ARM loans and interest rates? Oh, right, he shouldn't have to. He should just wait for someone to come along and bail him out. Just like Sidekick users had to wait for Microsoft to recover their data (which, thankfully, it looks like they finally did). Look, this isn't rocket science. You have data? Learn how to protect it. Or learn the hard way what happens if you don't.

Dave: That's an unexpectedly geek-elitist (geelitist) position; since you only recently became aware that satellites aren't held up in the sky by magical sky hooks, I would have expected more empathy from you for the poor saps that don't eat, live, and breath tech yet sometimes need to buy modern gadgets. Tech is extremely complicated, and it's just not reasonable to expect people to learn the nuances of every product they buy. In other words, for all practical purposes, it is rocket science. Stuff should just work. Reliable backups should be engineered into modern stuff. The iPhone backs itself up when you sync it; the Palm Pre backs itself up to the cloud on a regular basis. Windows creates restore points that make it possible to recover from corrupted registry settings and unbootable PCs. These are examples of modern products that take the voodoo out of backups. Maybe T-Mobile should buy one of them and see what makes them tick. And you, sir, should be less ornery.

Rick: You calling me ornery is like Glenn Beck telling people they cry too much. Obviously everything should work the way you describe, but here in the real world, it doesn't. That's why people back up their desktop data, and it's why they should do likewise with their phone data. It's just common sense. A phone can get lost, stolen, broken, tanked by a server, or whatever, and the end result is the same: lost data. Don't know how to make backups? Learn. You seem to think this is like asking people to learn C++, when in fact it's rarely more complicated than a few clicks of the mouse.

Dave: There you go again, presupposing that people should even know that they should back up their phone. Are you listening to yourself? Back up your phone? Five years ago, backing up your phone was as common as backing up your microwave oven. Well, blame the victims all you like; at least your rant has given me the clarity to understand that if anyone should take the blame for this fiasco, it's T-Mobile. I hope they've learned something from this experience. I've learned something too: Not to argue with you before you've had breakfast.

Okay, who won the argument? Voice your own opinions on the comments!
(T-Mobile logo via AFP.)
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