AIM Outage: You Get What You Pay For?

Opinion: AOL may come out the double loser for cutting off service from thousands of customers: It made customers mad and lost face over a free program. Where's the justice in that?

Cant live (or work) without instant messaging? Many thousands of America Online customers found the answer this week when the company accidentally pulled the plug on their accounts. While the shutdown proved the unreliability of the service, it also showed that theres nothing more reliable than a companys reluctance to give customers bad news.

Like your cell phone service provider, AOL recycles unused account names on a regular basis. The company said it mistakenly deactivated a "number" of AOL Instant Messenger accounts this week during its regular cycle of opening unused screen names to new users. Oops!

The company told that it hopes to restore the mistakenly turned-off accounts by Monday.

In the meantime, users cut off from the service are discovering how to live without the benefits of immediate connection to online coworkers. They must make do with e-mail—a technology thats having its own share of usability problems with a daily dose of spam, and worse, malicious attacks—or use ancient technology such as the telephone.

This AOL reliability tale reminds me of a similar experience with e-mail services long ago in the mid-1980s, in the days before the rise of Internet. In those days, e-mail was the purview of academics (through the networks that were the base of the Internet) or it came through expensive paid services such as Compuserve (formerly Compu-Serv) and GEnie (General Electric Information Services) and even the nascent America Online, which was formed from AppleLink. Users connected to other members in a mostly closed system.

Volunteer groups such as BMUG (Berkeley Macintosh User Group) and BCS (Boston Computer Society) ran bulletin boards, or e-mail servers that users connected to directly. The service opened up e-mail to many new users, who grew to understand its benefits and usefulness. And they appreciated the costs, which were usually free to members of the organization.

But some users complained at the time about the reliability of the BBS-based e-mail, even though it was free. Yes, they understood that the server was maintained by volunteers, who sometimes worked long into the night to keep the machine and its modems operational. Or didnt. Still, the members had come to rely on the service for business and social communication.

I postulated at the time a "law of computing" on the issue: The more we rely on a piece of software or hardware, the more unreliable it becomes. When we first start to fool around with a technology, we really dont care much about its reliability. But when we use a program, service or hardware device for critical business, then we feel any little hiccup.

Of course, the complaints over the quality of service for BBS e-mail were ridiculous. First of all, you get what you pay for. And a volunteer project mostly staffed by students would suffer at times, such as during finals week, or when sys-admins got real jobs.

For many business users, instant messaging is now a business necessity. A recent survey by The META Group shows that 57 percent of respondents use IM at work for personal reasons, while 56 percent of those surveyed use IM at home for business purposes.


Read more here about the use and management of instant messaging for business in Business IM Vendors Look for Answers, Profits.

So, the winner on the reliability issue this week may be Microsoft and its Office Live Communications Server 2005 platform. Microsoft is working to support all three of the primary IM protocols: AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger.

The loser is AOL, which took several days to admit that it had even screwed up. What was a "number" of accounts has now grown to more than 10,000, the company said Friday. Worse, the first notice of this so-called snafu wasnt posted on the companys support site until the end of the week and only after the buzz over the problem turned into a roar.

While AIM is a free service, customers should have been given speedy notice of an outage, even if the information is incomplete and the duration short-lived. Were not living in the age of the BBS anymore.

Executives at Microsofts Online Division and Yahoo might learn from the lesson and prepare for their own outages.


Check out eWEEK.coms for more on IM and other collaboration technologies.