November 1, 2012
Like many others in the New York region, I am writing this in a cold, mostly power-less house, without landline telephone or Internet connections. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of a neighbor with a generator, we have an extension cord that is powering the refrigerator and one light, plus charging of various iPhones, iPads, and PCs. With a gas range for cooking and intact house, we are basically engaged in high-class camping, with both the pleasures and discomforts that entails.
Right now, my only electronic connection to the outside world is through my iPhone, which did provide email through the storm, though cell voice service went missing for 36 hours after Sandy hit. I am writing this on my laptop, which doesn’t have Internet access, because I refuse to write an article like this on the keypad of an iPhone. (Yes, I know, I should have bought the iPad with 3G, but do I really need to spend $600 just for that?) Once I get this written, I will head to the nearby Starbucks and use their Wi-Fi to post this blog.
What this experience has reinforced for me are four lessons:
- Modern life depends on the Internet, but life is possible without it if one is not young. My wife and I who grew up in the dark ages before the Internet have had a much easier time adapting to the loss of power and Internet service than our teenage kids, for whom this is a more disruptive event. We have non-electronic activities to fall back on – like reading or conversing face to face with friends. So, we are enjoying the break. But for our kids, electronic toys and Internet apps are their life. The first thing my son did after we got the line connected to our neighbors was to add an extension cord to the TV and Xbox so he could play video games. What has been disrupted for my wife and I is our ability to work, because our jobs – hers as a financial advisor and mine as a technology analyst – depend on online access to systems, data, and clients.
- Disruptions of electric grids and Internet access are becoming more frequent. In 2011, Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast, knocking out power and phone service in our area for seven days. Now, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy has done the same thing for an expected seven to 10 days. That’s two years in a row that this has happened. Other parts of the country have experienced droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, ice storms and blizzards, and floods with greater than normal frequency. Whether or not this is attributable to global warming is debated, but I am now assuming that at least once a year a disaster will happen that knocks out my electricity and Internet access.
- Build backups so you can function off the grid. Our neighbor has installed a geothermal unit for heating and cooling his house without electricity, natural gas, or fuel oil. He put in the aforementioned backup generator. And he is in the process of installing solar panels. We look at him enviously but with gratitude because of his willingness to share. I have been grateful for my iPhone and the limited but still invaluable connectivity that it has provided to the outside world, but I'm also grateful for my old-fashioned Dell laptop, which has allowed me to do at least some work using the files that I have retained on my hard disk. But the corporate Gmail on my laptop is now a brick because of lack of Internet access, and other SaaS apps that we use might as well be on the moon. I had to ask our administrator for our SuccessFactors app to complete my quarterly review on my behalf because I couldn’t access it myself. Next time a major disaster looms, I will make sure to copy onto my local hard disk all of the big tech market data files that we maintain on our Forrester server, so I can access them for work when I lose the Internet.
- Plain old paper has its virtues. US Postal Service of the mail resumed in my neighborhood before cell service was restored, and long before Internet service will be restored. Delivery of The New York Times in paper form to my front door missed only Tuesday, a far superior experience than trying to access The Times online via the iPhone. Reading a book by flashlight is better than reading an electronic book on the iPad when one worries about the iPad battery running out of juice. And in our village, where I serve on the board of trustees, we realized that we could better reach our residents with news and advice using a paper letter delivered via reliable US mail than we could through the uncertain options of email, telephone, or Internet posting.
As for what the impact this disaster will have on tech markets – well, the short answer is not much. Any cutbacks in near-term tech buying due to the storm will be more than offset by purchases to replace equipment lost in flooded homes and data centers. What it may do is cause firms to rethink where they have their servers and data centers – below ground in potentially flooded basements now does not look so smart – and perhaps strengthen concerns about relying too much on the cloud. Mostly, it will serve as a cautionary tale, along the lines of the lessons I outlined above.