Complex Made Simple

What happens when the tech companies that power our homes suffer an outage?

Today, companies like Google, Amazon and others are endeavoring to integrate themselves into every facet of our home life. So, what happens when their servers go down?

Millions of people were forced to face this question this week, as a Google outage that lasted up to 2 hours for some brought the lives of many to a halt Services like Google Drive, Gmail, Google Classroom, YouTube and Google Home went dark during this downtime While short-lived, this outage has forced many users, especially those of Google Home, to consider their over-dependence on the ever-present services of a company like Google

While we have not yet reached the levels of technological advancement and home integration that we see in many romanticized sci-fis of the past century, we are seeing the early days of that transition. With 5G slowly finding its way into our lives, powering the all-encompassing concept of the Internet-of-Things (IoT), we are inching ever so closer to a fully-interconnected world where our fridge, washing machine, lights, thermostat, and smartphones are all linked to the same network, accessible and adjustable by a touch or swipe on our phones or smart home control panel. 

Today, companies like Google, Amazon and others are endeavoring to integrate themselves into every facet of our home life. They might have first started as a search engine or e-commerce platform; however, slowly but surely, these once one-trick ponies soon grew bolder and more ambitious. 

In 2017, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai made it clear what his company’s ambitions are for the future: “In an AI-first world we are rethinking all our products.”

The New York Times, reporting on the news at the time, noted that “Google’s ambition, as Mr. Pichai and the speakers that followed him made clear, is to knit all [of Google’s] devices and services together. Google users — which means just about everyone, in Google’s vision — will interact with the company all day long and do it so seamlessly that they barely notice it.”

Tech companies are becoming omnipresent in consumers’ livesSmart speakers are always in the background of your home, at your beck and call, for better or worse.Three years later, Google and its rivals are closer to this goal that all of them share by now. Through products and services like Google Nest, Google Assistant, the Echo Dot, and myriad others, these companies are starting to power many of our homes’ most important features. From keeping stock of the food in a fridge, to powering the cameras that surround our homes and the smart doorbell that welcomes and keeps track of friendly visitors (and otherwise), we are becoming increasingly dependent on these truly innovative inventions. 

But what happens when these fail? In an increasingly digital home experience, we make ourselves prone to the ever-present risk of malicious threat actors, which threaten to pervade our homes in ways we are not guarded against. You can lock your doors and shut your windows to keep a thief out, but what do you do when the thief is a hacker that can let themselves in through your proverbial front door and in seconds take control of your home? As our smart home tech improves, so will a hacker’s chances of infiltrating your abode. 

However, smart home owners also have another potential issue to contend with: What if the tech powering and protecting your home goes bust, even for a few hours? Many people were forced to face this question this week. 

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Google goes down for up to 2 hours

On Monday, Google suffered an outage that lasted up to 2 hours for some users, taking services like Gmail, YouTube, Google Drive, Google Docs and Google Pictures offline. Millions were affected by this problem. 

The company’s search engine, however, continued to function normally. 

Google outage leaves Home users in the dark

Additionally, Google’s services that power its smart home offering, like Google Assistant, also went dark, bringing the aforementioned worst-case scenario to the forefront. 

“Early Monday morning, [Editor] Joe Brown walked into his daughter’s room and delivered his usual greeting, ‘Hey, Google, turn on the lights,'” Bloomberg writes

Like an increasing number of people, Brown has grown to rely on a home assistant like Google’s, which lets him control various aspects of his dwelling by voice. 

Bloomberg continued: “But that morning, nothing happened. With the lights out, Brown grabbed a lantern. Cradling his daughter in one hand and his phone in the other, he tweeted: “I’m sitting here in the dark in my toddler’s room because the light is controlled by @Google Home. Rethinking… a lot right now.”

His tweet has since been retweeted over 10,000 times and awarded more than 43,000 likes, igniting a discussion on Twitter about the pitfalls of over-relying on smart home technology. 

“Not having a go, and not a luddite or anything, but I’ve never understood why someone would want to connect their lighting to the Internet,” one user said. 

“I work in IT and I won’t have my homes lights or anything else depend on the internet to operate. That was true when I lived in the city and even more so now that I live in the country with much slower speeds.  Besides don’t you think they are harvesting that data for marketing,” another replied to Brown. 

While outages like these are not common, they do remind us that these multibillion-dollar companies are not infallible, and that even a 45-minute downtime can bring the world to a halt – at home or otherwise. 

Insights and analytics firm SEMrush noted a dramatic increase in searches around Google Classroom being down, which indicates that many students. for example, were probably trying to use the service at the time. In addition, business users were equally as impacted.

“While G Suite now hosts over 6 million paying businesses, a lot more people are using Google services for free,” , content marketer at SEMrush, wrote. “Therefore, every minute of an outage puts millions of people in distress and slows down businesses.”

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The cost to Google

SEMrush recorded over 1.5 million tweets about Google, 300K tweets about Gmail, and the trending #YouTubeDOWN hashtag appearing in over 180K tweets within just 3 hours and for the US alone. 

According to the company’s estimates, a one-hour outage would have cost Google-owned YouTube $1.7 million as a result of lost advertising revenue. 

While $1.7 million is just a drop in the sea of greenbacks for one of the richest companies in the world, it’s another figure that the company should pay attention to. 

As per SEMrush’s data, Google searches for alternatives to the company’s services peaked and were among the most popular search queries on the site. 

“Google Trends demonstrates this impressive increase in the users’ interest around competitive products to YouTube, like Vimeo and Dailymotion, with things returning pretty much to pre-outage level very quickly,” Varagouli noted.

While this should be no cause for fear from Google’s end, it does illustrate the motivation behind the company’s drive in keeping users’ eyeballs glued to its platforms, as consumers turned to rival alternatives within minutes of the outage. Whether we like it or not, the struggle for online users’ attention is a merciless business. 

Perhaps what we can learn from this short-lived downtime is how alarmingly dependent we’ve become on a company like Google for powering our homes, educating our children, maintaining our careers, and entertaining ourselves. It’s high time we ask ourselves some tough questions. 

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