Outages: When the Web Breaks, and Takes Our Apps Away

It’s pretty clear that we’re moving to become a hyper-connected society. It’s no longer just activities like email and online gaming that are enhanced, or obstructed, by your connection. Instead, we’re increasing our reliance on apps and services for video, banking and even reading a book.

But what happens when the web breaks? When you have that power outage or, worse, when the server farm thousands of miles away does? Outages are a big obstruction to becoming a completely online society and it’s something we’re going to take a look at today.

What Is an Outage?

Before we move on, we first need to understand how an outage or downtime comes about. Basically, for the end user, it’s when we we’re unable to access a service or application because something out of our control is not running correctly and efficiently. If you’re using iMessage and Apple’s data centres suffer a severing of their connectivity to the Internet, thus resulting in you being unable to use the service, that’s an outage.

For services like Gmail or Dropbox, it’s pretty simple to understand: when Gmail goes down, you’re unable to access your inbox. What’s far more frustrating — and increasingly common — is when native apps rely on web services, and they break when the web is down. When the apps don’t even necessarily need web access, it’s far more than just a frustration.

An Outage That Shouldn’t Be a Problem

Xbox Live is a paid subscription service that is required to be active in order for you to have significant functionality on your Xbox console; you’ll need to be a paying member of the service to download and run apps, for example. So you download Netflix and have fun watching all your favourite content through the service. Then, disaster strikes. Xbox Live is down but, regardless of the state of Netflix, you’re unable to continue watching because Microsoft can’t authenticate your subscription.

Netflix for Xbox 360 requires access to Xbox Live Gold, and requires the service to be up to authenticate you when loading the application.

This has happened to me multiple times thanks to the less-than-perfect reliability of Microsoft’s service. Yet, it’s a problem that shouldn’t exist when the desired activity is not something operated by Microsoft themselves. Evidently, Steve Ballmer and co want to capitalise on a casual market who don’t want to use their Xbox primarily for gaming but when it all breaks, the end product is only dissatisfaction with users and a tarnishing of the reputation of the console as a viable home media product.

A City-Wide Scale

When EA launched the 2013 reboot of SimCity this month, it was far from a reliable release. For various reasons, DRM included, the development team at Maxis opted to require users to have a persistent internet connecting during play and, therefore, a constant reliance on EA’s servers.

As some would expect, it didn’t go well.

During the launch week, especially in the days immediately after the US release, EA’s servers receive enough demand to overwhelm resources and block many players out of the game. Those that got a slot frequently reported saved games (all stored in the cloud) corrupting and other game-breaking issues.

SimCity is one significant example of bad outages seriously affecting users recently.

Whereas Microsoft could easily sever the reliance on their servers for users of Xbox apps, the case of SimCity is a little different. Part of the overarching concept of the game involves features like a dynamic market for trading in-game goods and multiplayer features through EA’s Origin service that contributed the decision, so simply switching off the requirement and ignoring DRM concerns isn’t quite the straightforward option. If Maxis and EA were determined to have these online features as such a fundamental element of the game, we’re not one to tell them they shouldn’t but it’s clear that easing reliance on an internet connection and stable EA services would have resulted in a lot happier players.

Final Thoughts

Ideally, we’d all have a stable, fast internet connection. Ideally, server farms and data centres would never fail. Unfortunately, that isn’t a reality, even if some parts of society are acting as if it were. That’s one of the main reasons native apps are still, in many ways, more popular than web apps, and why sometimes it’s best to use them together. But when web services go down and they take down our native apps with them, it’s a mess that can’t be mitigated by just using a native app instead.

We’re all using services that go out, and we’d love to hear your stories about times when native apps that rely on cloud services that went down.