Thursday, December 23, 2010

Really Bad Timing

There seems to be a grim undercurrent of irony in the chronology of events associated with the Skype systems crash.  Word seems to have come first to CNET News by way of The Digital Home, Don Reisinger’s contribution to the CNET Blog Network (with the implication that he is not a CNET employee).  Reisinger first put up his post yesterday at 8:58 AM (Pacific time) and then added time-stamped updates as follows:

Skype appears to be suffering an outage.

Twitter users around the globe are taking to the social network to report that Skype is down for them. The tweets started hitting Twitter this morning and continue as of this writing. Users are also reporting that their mobile applications, including those on Android and on the iPhone, are inoperable.

I tested the Skype app on my Mac and it is down as of this writing. My Skype iPhone app is also down. CNET's Rafe Needleman had been experiencing outage issues this morning, but said that his service was soon restored.

Update 9:18 a.m. PT: Skype wrote in an e-mail to CNET this morning that it's "assessing the matter now and its extent. We apologize for the inconvenience caused to our users."

Update 11:12 a.m. PT: Skype then followed that up with a blog post shedding more light on the outage.

According to the company, it "noticed that the number of people online on Skype was falling, which wasn't typical or expected." After investigating the issue, Skype found that "a large number of supernodes," which act as the service's phone directory of sorts, "were taken offline by a problem affecting some versions of Skype."

To fix the issue, Skype's engineers are currently "creating new 'mega-supernodes'" that should get the service running normally in "a few hours." Skype's group video chatting feature could take even longer to be fixed.

Update 2:27 p.m. PT: As promised, Skype says that its service is "now returning to normal." However, the company also noted on its Twitter account that it could still "take several hours for everyone to be able to sign in again."

We will continue to share details as we hear more.

This morning, at 6:46 AM, Reisinger put up a new post to update the progress in which he estimated that the traffic level was still only 30% of the normal amount.

Going back to yesterday, however, note that Skype sent its first “official” notification to CNET some time before Reisinger’s 9:18 AM update.  Meanwhile, at 9:58 AM Bloomberg ran an analysis story about Skype prepared by Joseph Galante and based on an interview with CEO Tony Bates conducted on December 20.  As one might guess, the content was primarily promotional and therefore highly upbeat:

Skype Technologies SA Chief Executive Officer Tony Bates will fuel growth by adding corporate partnerships and hiring engineers to build new products as the company readies for an initial public offering.

Bates, who joined the Internet calling company in October from Cisco Systems Inc., said in an interview Dec. 20 that agreements with other companies will be an increasingly important part of Skype’s development. He plans to hire as many as 500 people next year, most of whom will be engineers, to focus on new products and make sure that consumers have the same experience using Skype on their phone, desktop or television.

“More and more of us are living in a world of mobility that started off as convenience but now is becoming a richer form of communication,” said Bates, 43, at the company’s new 90,000-square-foot office in Palo Alto, California. “What we think is most powerful is not one modality -- it’s how multiplatform you can become. Consumers want choices.”

Bates faces the challenge of building new sources of revenue and coaxing money out of Skype’s more than 560 million users, of which only 1.4 percent pay for the service, according to a regulatory filing. Skype, which started as a way for consumers to chat for free, is developing premium services such as group video calling, pursuing corporate accounts and plans to raise $100 million in an IPO.

“Companies like Skype have a tremendous amount of opportunities,” said Bates. “You have to focus on the things that matter.”

The timing could not have been worse, raising the old Watergate question about the service outage:  What did Galante and Bloomberg know, and when did they know it?  Fortunately, when we read “below the fold” we find the answer.  Under the subheading “Growing Pains,” Galante wrote the following:

Today, some Skype users had difficulty logging on to the service, a matter Skype said it was investigating.

To be fair Galante may not have appreciated the magnitude of the problem Skype was experiencing;  and, on the basis of Reisinger’s chronology, it would be fair to say that Skype itself had not yet assessed that magnitude.

Nevertheless, the chronology reminds me of one of the rules I was taught when working at the MIT campus radio station (back in the days when MIT had the rights to the call letters WTBS, which, at that time, stood for Technology, rather than Turner, Broadcasting System).  Even though we only ran commercials on our closed-circuit AM system, the rule was that, if news breaks about any kind of air crash, all advertising for airlines gets pulled for at least 24 hours.  No one wants to hear an ad about flying to Bermuda right after a report of a plane crashing, regardless of where the crash took place.  By that logic it is hard to imagine anyone (particularly someone for whom Skype has become a major tool for doing global business) considering serious investment in Skype at a time when their service is on the fritz in a really big way.

If Bloomberg was in a bit of a bind over whether or not to run Galante’s story, the same cannot be said of the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Business Report section now draws heavily on Bloomberg sources (explicitly credited as such).  The Chronicle ran the story, pretty much as it had originally appeared, this morning, which is to say at a time when just about anyone following digital technology news knew about the Skype outage and may even have been a user whose service had not yet been restored.  Was this really the best time for the Chronicle to shuttle the story into print (next to a color photograph of a smiling Bates)?  Who made this call in an editorial capacity?  Enquiring minds want to know!

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