Cloud computing is a terrific idea. The ability to be able to access your data and services wherever you are, on whatever device you're on, is the perfect scenario for most people. Unfortunately we're not quite at the point where we can depend solely upon the cloud for all of our digital needs. Without a persistent connection, many services are rendered useless and we're stuck without our data. A very recent example of this is the current debacle that EA is facing with the relaunch of its smash hit title SimCity.
SimCity launches in the UK today, it's been available in the US since Tuesday (5th March 2013). For those unfamiliar with the award winning game series, it's a city building and planning game that's been around since the late 1980s, the idea being to build the best metropolis you can, whilst averting man-made disasters and acts of God.
In a poorly hidden attempt to crack down on piracy, shrewdly paraded as 'awesome inter-connected community benefits', EA wisely decided that SimCity requires a persistent internet connection. Traditionally the single player game followed the mantra of Man vs Machine, without the need to connect to the web. Unfortunately for all SimCity players around the world, who have been waiting for 10 years for this latest title in the franchise, EA's cloud game servers (known as Origin) can't handle the load. Players, if you can call them that at all, are reporting waiting times of well over half an hour to 'connect' to EA's servers and be allowed to play the game... if they can even connect at all. Many users are also reporting loss of data with EA's cloud saved games (you can't actually save a game locally), meaning that hours of already wasted lives spent pushing pixels are rendered completely meaningless, without so much as a digital foundation to show for it. Needless to say that this has left customers furious and demanding refunds. All of this rings familiar warning bells for those poor saps who went through this slalom with Activision's Diablo III.
EA's Origin servers are powered by Amazon's AWS, the same platform that powers other cloud services like Dropbox, Heroku and Netflix. Over the past year AWS has had some crippling outages that have affected the sites and services hosted on the platform, often bringing them cripplingly to the ground. A recent outage on Christmas Eve saw Netflix users with the inability to stream their favourite holiday movies, Dropbox users without their files and many Heroku sites also offline.
Each and every single time our cloud services suffer an outage we're reminded that relying solely on 'the cloud' for our digital needs isn't the smartest idea in the world. There was a famous case a few years ago where Microsoft accidentally removed contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists and photos from T-Mobile Sidekick owners (a smartphone). One morning a million Sidekick users woke up to find all of the data on their devices gone, without the ability to restore from a local backup. This should have been a giant wakeup call for the industry.
So what happens when we don't have that persistent connection, when 'the cloud' goes down, when a service winds up and closes? What happens to our data then? What are we actually left with at the end of the day? In many cases, unfortunately, nothing. Services like Dropbox and Google Drive at least allow you to have local copies of your data, which means that if they go down you're not affected too badly; that is, at least, if you actually have the data you need stored locally and not just in the cloud. However with games like SimCity and services like Netflix if we can't connect then we're cut off from what we're actually paying for. Although, what are we actually paying for?
With the inevitable shift of most digital services moving to 'the cloud' and complex computational processes being done in server farms, we have to mentally reassess our purchasing decisions. When we buy SimCity, we're not actually paying for the game. When we buy Spotify Premium, we're not paying for the music. We're purchasing the ability to connect to a remote server that may, or may not, deliver a service. This is a huge shift for everyone and may seem like a bit of a moronic idea, after all you've just shelved out £40 for a new game, what do you mean you didn't just buy the damn thing?
I recently lost my Facebook account and with it I lost 6 years of my digital life. Photos, videos, messages, statuses, were all gone. In the form of Facebook, in theory at least, I can request a backup of all of my data and I'll still have it when the service closes, or I'm cut off from it (although Facebook are doing a pretty good job of ignoring my requests). Something similar happened with the storage service Drop.io a few years ago. I was a premium subscriber, but when Facebook bought out Drop.io, users were given about one week to download and backup all of their data before the service was closed down and everything was destroyed. The same can happen with Google Drive, Dropbox and other cloud storage solutions, at least with these we can take something away when shit hits the fan. However with services like Spotify and Netflix, or games like SimCity, when they decide to power down their servers, or we lose a persistent connection, we're (for want of a better word) fucked.
Not all cloud services can have redundancy plans for when their inevitable time to power down comes. As users this is something we need to prepare ourselves for and expect. No matter how much money throw at something, we no longer own it. We're on constant premium trials. If you don't like it, tough, you don't have to use the services. Sure in the case of SimCity we can expect EA to allow people to play a game offline at least, after all we don't have a persistent connection to the web at all times, but they claim that most of the game's computational processing is done server side (to save on your system resources), so you NEED to be connected. I'm not going to judge whether this just some washed up excuse to secretly try and mask the true DRM reasoning behind their decision, however I am going to point out that this is an increasing trend as it does become easier and easier to have a persistent connection to the web. As users we need to accept that we no longer have control over what we 'pay for', although it would be nice if developers could figure out some way for us to have the same experiences that we've come to expect from cloud services, without requiring a persistent connection.
Data loss happens, backup what you can. Services disappear and fail, try and become part of the solution and work out how we can work around this when the inevitable happens. Don't just sit around, moaning and bitching on Twitter about things not being fair. No amount of complaining is going to change anything, actions have always spoken louder than words.