By Stephen Baker Say you have a crucial conference call in an hour and your phone goes dead. What do you do? A generation ago, this wasn't much of an issue, at least in the U.S. Phones in the days of the Bell monopoly were engineered to be "mission critical." You picked up one of those heavy receivers back then, and the dial tone was as prompt and reliable as water from the tap. It worked.
Yet these days, even as we pack global multimedia in our pockets, phone service sometimes seems to march backward. Andy Beal was one of 220 million subscribers to Skype, the cut-rate Internet telephony service owned by eBay (EBAY), who saw the service go dark on Aug. 16. A software glitch kept it down for the next two days. Founder of the Raleigh (N.C.) Internet marketing consultancy Marketing Pilgrim, Beal learned that Skype was out an hour before clients were to call him from Holland. He had to message them in a hurry, telling them to call his tenuous backup: the cell phone. "It was embarrassing," he says. But at least the cell phone worked--which isn't always the case.
Are communications getting worse? Not by a long shot. We're surrounded by miraculous machines and services, most of them calibrated to a level software engineers have long called "good enough." In the right circumstances, good enough is great for the entire economy. A marketplace that's not hung up on fail-safe standards is open to risk and innovation, and drives down prices. Ever since the dawn of the PC--the archetype for a good-enough machine--inventors have been freer than ever to piece together and launch their visions. Some are brilliant, some are half-baked, many are a blend of the two. A precious few are up and running 99.999% of the time--Bell's old standard. But they cost far less to build.
The rise of good-enough technology raises different questions for do-it-yourselfers and major corporations alike. It's no longer whether we can afford a technology, but more often whether we can afford the disruption if and when it fails. Is it critical? Do we have backup in place? Many of us face this question every time we venture from our office with a cell phone. We don't have "one machine that works all the time," says Dave Morgan, chairman of Tacoda Inc., a New York advertising company. "We have lots of alternatives that work most of the time."
The upside of this sloppy status quo is enormous. Consider Andy Beal. He pays Skype about $60 a year, plus a couple cents for foreign calls. This gives him global telephony wherever he wanders with his laptop. He calls the service "seamless." He recently switched most of his office work--including e-mail, contacts, and calendar--to free Web services. This, of course, entails risk. In late July, an electrical outage in San Francisco brought some of the biggest sites, from Craigslist to Second Life, crashing down for 12 hours.
Beal's data reside on Google (GOOG). The search giant is in fact an example of a major corporation that, like so many small fry, bets its business on good-enough technology. Google's data centers, the heart of the company's operations, consist of hundreds of thousands of commodity computers wired into a vast global network. These computers are little more reliable than yours or mine. Many die and are replaced every week. It could be that one of them at this very minute is issuing its dying blinks--and taking down Andy Beal's contact data with it. But if Google is working as designed, it links customers to another copy of those files or Web pages stored elsewhere on the network. Every computer has a legion of backups. Success, in the good-enough economy, means racing ahead even as the machines supporting us sputter and break.
Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York