How much do you rely on instant messaging services like Google Talk? One way to find out is for the service to go down around the world as it has done today. Quickly trending on Twitter, the impact seemed to be world wide, highlighting how important a mechanism of communication it has become and how vulnerable we happen to be when it fails.
Unlike other communication media that have some robustness through many different participants providing the service, the problem with Google Talk was a central issue affecting large parts of its global network. This is similar to the global outage experienced by RIM’s BlackBerry messaging users which was caused by a central network failure, something that shouldn’t have been able to happen of course. Part of RIM’s downturn could possibly be traced to this failure and the realisation that something that was marketed to businesses as a secure and ultra-reliable service, wasn’t.
Whether this outage has the same impact on Google will be interesting to see. Google’s reputation has been built around delivering a reliable and technically sound service in everything it does online. A service disruption as wide-spread as this one has the potential to cause lasting reputational damage to the organisation. Of course, it also highlights that as everyone rushes to the “Cloud” and relies on services like Google to preserve our digital lives, this trust may be misplaced.
However, it is a testament to Google that a free service like Google Talk could become so popular and have so many people rely on it for day-to-day communication. The irony here of course is that it is an almost advertising free medium and for Google would bring very little, if any, direct revenue.
One of the aspects of the Google Talk outage is that despite the attention it will get, it highlights the multitude of different channels we have available to communicate electronically. There are many instant messaging alternatives such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and others. Even social games like Words with Friends has a messaging function built in.
There are suggestions that the overall popularity of instant messaging has been waning with the number of users decreasing by 29%. However both Skype and Google have seen their user numbers grow. Whether their growth continues after tonight will be interesting to see.
David Glance is a Director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.This article was originally published on The Conversation on July 27. Republished with permission.