Microsoft, T-Mobile Could Recover Sidekick Data, but Questions Remain

Microsoft has faced a flurry of media attention after a server outage at one of its subsidiaries, Danger, deleted personal data from Sidekick smartphones across the nation. Although Microsoft claims that personal data will be restored, T-Mobile has suspended selling the Sidekick, and questions remain as to the cause of the original incident.

Microsoft seems to be on its way to restoring personal data for users of T-Mobile's Sidekick smartphone who found their information deleted after a server malfunction at Microsoft's subsidiary Danger knocked out service, reportedly beginning Oct. 2. A few questions about the cause of the original incident remain, however.

Even with reaction to the incident having cooled over the past few days, Sidekick sales remain temporarily on hold, and T-Mobile declined to indicate to eWEEK when they might resume.

"We're pleased that Microsoft/Danger is continuing to make progress," David Beigie, vice president of corporate communications for T-Mobile, wrote in an e-mailed statement to eWEEK. "T-Mobile's sole focus remains on helping Sidekick customers recover from this disruption."

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On Oct. 10, T-Mobile issued a statement on its corporate online forum suggesting that many Sidekick users' personal data, including contacts and calendar entries, had been wiped out due to server failure at Danger.

The problem was eventually determined to be a hardware issue, and in a follow-up T-Mobile post on Oct. 12, the Sidekick's 800,000 users were urged to not turn off the device or remove the battery, lest it attempt to synchronize with the damaged servers.

Three days later, the situation seemed not quite so catastrophic.

"We are pleased to report that we have recovered most, if not all, customer data for those Sidekick customers whose data was affected by the recent outage," Roz Ho, corporate vice president for Microsoft's Premium Mobile Experiences, wrote in a statement on the T-Mobile Forum Oct. 15. "We plan to begin restoring users' personal data as soon as possible, starting with personal contacts, after we have validated the data and our restoration plan."

After the restoration of personal contacts, Ho added, Microsoft's engineers would focus on bringing back calendar, notes, tasks, photographs, high scores and other user data.

According to Ho, the incident was attributable to "system failure that created data loss in the core database and the backup," necessitating that the system be rebuilt component by component in order to recover user data. No mention was made of the role that Hitachi Data Systems, to which Microsoft had reportedly outsourced an upgrade of the Sidekick SAN (storage area network) at around the time of the server failure, may have played in the incident.

Even as Microsoft moves to restore the data, a number of questions about the crash linger.

"You would expect a redundancy factor to have been in place," Erik Laykin, an analyst with the Global Electronic Discovery & Investigations group at Duff & Phelps, an independent financial advisory and investment bank, said in an interview with eWEEK. "What were the protocols established to handle redundancy and failure issues? We don't know if Hitachi or another vendor escalated a risk, which was then not acted upon."

Reuters had previously reported that the "Sidekick runs on a proprietary Danger system." With that in mind, a loss of Danger employees following the Microsoft acquisition could also have potentially affected the situation.

"There are reports that Microsoft perhaps removed certain individuals or technologists from the Danger staff in order to support other mobile computing initiatives, and that left them short-handed," said Laykin, who focuses on issues such as computer forensics and corporate investigations. "If that happened, it's certainly possible that it could have left them vulnerable. I've seen a similar thing with organizations that try to support systems on shortened staff."

The incident has led to questioning from some quarters about the safety of storing personal data in the cloud. It could also cast a potential shadow on Microsoft's "Pink," its much-rumored smartphone with a sliding form factor allegedly reminiscent of the Sidekick. Microsoft has refused to comment on those rumors.