Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The beauty of free software as a service

Ok, I title of the post is misleading. One would think I will talk about how open source software is powering SaaS and why this is making life great for everyone. I have done it already. Many times. It does, believe me.

Something happened last week.

On Friday, I opened my computer and tried to access Netvibes, which is my current home page. I got a "500 Internal Server error". Reload: same thing. Reload again: sorry... Ohh well, I said, it is a free service, how can I complain?

Fifteen minutes later I had a call scheduled with Italy. As usual, with Skype. Strangely, I was not connected to the network. Strangely, it was not working. Ohh well, I said, it is a free service, how can I complain? I used the phone.

An hour later, my wife yelled from the living room: Skype is not working!!!! I need to call mom!!! She was not happy. She complained. Like it was my fault... I scrambled to put money in Jajah. I made the call for her, phone rang, mom was on the line and she was happy (high priority in my life goals).

My normal computing abilities were halved on Friday morning. No news, no calls. I invested "precious" time to help my wife. Simply because free services were down. Free services my life relies on...

Could I complain to someone? No. Try calling someone in Skype or Netvibes...

You can't complain for a free service.

Did Skype give an explanation? No. C'mon, you are kidding me, the problem was that a Microsoft patch made reboot all the PCs on the planet???? The issue was that the authentication system on their servers got screwed up, probably because it was not sized properly. That's a scalability issue. I had one in my past while working on a consumer online trading platform. Our authentication server started to choke up. The queue got long. The clients re-tried to login after 30 seconds. The queue increased. More login attempts... The system died. We had to manually clean the queue, block the clients, increase the power of the machines and their throughput, open clients up a chunk at a time. A painful excercise. But easy to explain. And we had to. Skype does not have to.

You can avoid giving explanations when a free service crashes.

Did Skype offer a refund? Nope. They increased my subscription for a week. Lame...

You do not have to offer a refund for a free service.

Bottom line: free software as a service is good for businesses. Get people hooked to them. Screw their lives. Nobody can say a word. Yep, they might leave you and use something else (in particular, if you piss off their wives), but it is a small prize to pay :-)