Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dodging bullets

Steve Jobs (and many others) regularly point us to the future and the next gotta-have items. We all know that these are all the proverbial two-edged swords but resistance is futile. There is usually some predictable grousing but gotta-have is gotta-have.

We have all experienced the temporary panic of power outages -- not so temporary when traveling. But most of the time life does go on.

Last week many millions of people in Asia temporarily lost their email. The WSJ's Mary Kissel (below) takes us through that episode.

We can only say that, "there but for the grace of God ..."

The Great Asian E-Mail Outage

January 5, 2007

HONG KONG -- I have long harbored a secret resentment of electronic mail. I spend hours upon hours, day and night, shooting off notes with little delicacy. "TXS" now suffices for "thank you" and "got your msg, am fine" is all my family gets when they kindly inquire as to my well-being. Among other things, I credit email with my deteriorating eyesight, now-lackluster letter writing (once a fond hobby), and rapidly degenerating prose.

And then, one day, it was gone.

The Great Asian Email Outage caught almost everyone by surprise. Who knew that the notes we zipped off went by sea cables swimming with the fishes? A 6.7-magnitude earthquake off the southern coast of Taiwan on Dec. 27 thankfully did not inflict as much human damage as recent natural disasters -- two people died and more than 40 were injured in Taiwan. But the electronic -- and mental -- destruction was enormous.

In a split second, great swathes of the region's Internet and telecommunications services went black. The snapped cables -- six in all, plus others that were partially mangled -- were located on a key chokepoint for telecommunications traffic, linking North and South Asia with the United States. The damage in this region stretched from Indonesia to South Korea. Lucky users had on-again, off-again service. But most of us just sat, frustrated, fuming at the screen at work or at home, with no connectivity at all.

The timing was, in a sense, lucky. Much of the world was on vacation. Imagine what would have happened if the temblor had hit on Jan. 2, when many people were back at work. Asia boasts 387.6 million Internet users, fully 35.5% of the world's total, according to Internet World Stats. That's well ahead of Europe, at 28.6%, and North America, at 21.3%. Internet connectivity is lower in Asia as a percentage of the population but the number is growing by leaps and bounds as places like India link up.

Still, despite the lucky timing -- if one can call it that -- workers of all shapes and sizes lost their cool over the past week. Banks couldn't trade stocks and bonds. U.S. and European retailers couldn't communicate with their Asian suppliers. Shipping companies reported problems reaching their customers. An education consultant told me she was resorting to mobile phone text messaging to communicate with her clients, many of whom were scrambling to hit January business school application deadlines. Others resorted to ancient technologies such as fax machines to get their jobs done.

At work, the horror sank in quickly for me. Our production system worked only intermittently. The information technology whizzes, normally quick to solve any problem, simply shrugged their shoulders. "Not us," they answered my entreaties, with a sigh. "Taiwan!"
Now, Taiwan is blamed for lots of things in Asia. China can't stand it because it's a functioning democracy with a separate cultural identity. Neighboring countries fear it will one day spark a war with Beijing. I normally feel great sympathy for Taiwan, which struggles to get respect or even recognition in all sorts of supposedly broad-minded groups, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations. But suddenly, I, too, felt a deep resentment of the place. How could Taiwan have allowed all the cables to run through one narrow stretch of sea?

The telecom companies respond that the Great Email Outage was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and the current setup suffices. The probability that this will happen again isn't worth the money to protect against.

While this past week has been stressful, it's also been instructive. I've learned to love what I hate: namely, those short, zippy e-mails that I had come to detest. Whether I like it or not, email facilitates the vast bulk of the work and transactions I gobble up during the day. The Internet provides the news, weather and entertainment. And the more one has, the more one wants. That's why socialism is a dead theory (except in some tenacious European circles). But I digress.

It's never comfortable to realize how dependent one is on a machine, be it a computer, a car, or something else. But if the Great Asian Email Outage taught me one thing, it's that email is a new necessity, period. And if you don't believe me, try a week without it.