Microsoft, Sidekick, and other high-tech disasters

Microsoft may have recovered most of the missing Sidekick data, but the bigger point remains: We're dependent on tech. When it screws up, more important things than data can be lost

The Sidekick soap opera continues today, with the report that maybe Microsoft didn't lose all of the Sidekick subscribers' personal data after all. That's good news, naturally. But we're still waiting to hear the official account of what exactly went wrong at Danger Inc.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "2009: The year your data died" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Meanwhile, I received an interesting note from a Cringester who identifies himself as an ex-Danger employee. He has the following to report (cleaned up slightly to fix typos):

I recall only too clearly the Monday morning arriving to find, 'Congratulations!, you've just been bought by M$' on the front door. As a long time Linux engineer, I knew what was coming. Still I listened politely to the cooing of, 'we bought you to learn how you do it; you are the experts, we are here to learn from you' and a mere 6 months later, the chant became, 'well, the way WE Do it is, ...'.  Yeah, I got it...

Danger grew up for its 7 or so years from a startup to making a living on their own products' income and I , like many, were proud to be contributors to Danger. When I was there, the service organization that provided the back-end service was among the highest priorities in the company, a sacrosanct part that held their responsibility in a cherished embrace.

Sadly, the marauding M$ project managers soon combed though the Danger ranks, taking more and more staff for their dubious development and depleting key Danger activities.

(I've asked Microsoft for comment; I'll update this post if and when it responds.)

In other words, the culprit was not sabotage, as was widely speculated, but the usual Microsoft chuckle-headedness. The good folks in Redmond may, of course, have a different explanation.

[UPDATE: Microsoft did ultimately get back to me, via one of its not-to-be-named spokesminions. Their reaction? "No comment." Gee, that was illuminating. Thanks guys.]

I asked Cringesters to nominate comparable screwups by major companies. Naturally, they came up with some doozies: the Bhopal chemical spill (Union Carbide), Love Canal (Hooker Chemical), the Exxon Valdez oil spill, exploding Ford Pintos, decades of lying by tobacco companies, and countless more.

As reader G. M. (no relation to the car company) writes:

Pretty amazing that we've had colossal company screw-ups that have resulted in tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of human deaths, environment disasters that will be felt for decades or centuries -- and the fact that somebody's drunken pictures are missing makes such headlines?

A fair point. I meant to ask for comparable tech disasters -- my bad. Call that one a minor screwup of my own.

On the tech side, R. B. nominates NASA's losing the original high-def tapes of the 1969 moon landing as a pretty big oops. Commenter JamesMartin adds Enron, HP's hiring of private eyes to snoop on reporters and its own board members, and the city of San Francisco, for putting network admin Terry Childs behind bars for 14 months for taking extreme measures to protect the city's network.

Ki Mae Heussner at put together a nice rogue's gallery of recent tech snafus; her top 7 tech disasters of the decade include the Heartland Payment Systems hack, exploding Dell laptops, the TJX Wi-Fi hack, and the great blackout of August 2003, which was initially caused by overgrown trees in Ohio but engulfed much of the northeastern United States and Canada thanks to a cascading computer systems failure.

Or how about Chernobyl? That puts the whole Sidekick debacle in perspective.

As D. B. writes (re: Sidekick, not Chernobyl): "The kind of crap happens all the time. This one isn't all that shocking. No, really -- is it?"

Not shocking, maybe, but certainly sobering. Our lives now literally depend on technology. Maybe the Amish have the right idea, after all.

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This story, "Microsoft, Danger, and other high-tech disasters," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in security at

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