Is Apple SaaS competent? Is Microsoft?

After the huge iPhone 3G provisioning debacle, the baffling MobileMe-upgrade morass, and now, yet another Apple e-mail outage, you have to ask yourself if Apple is really ready to deliver online software services. It's one thing if the iTunes store is down, but if e-mail or other MobileMe services are inaccessible for any length of time, users are going to scream, and they do just that on the Apple forums.

Let's face it. Running online software-as-a-service is a much different business proposition than being a software creator or consumer-products hardware company. And Apple is not the first to face this dilemma. Research In Motion gets a black eye and tons of negative mainstream-press coverage every time there's a BlackBerry e-mail service outage. Hundreds of thousands of users can be impacted, showing us how much we rely on online e-mail services to conduct our daily businesses.

On the one hand, I admire Apple for braving the world of online services. Apple continually takes on the role of product innovator, blazing new trails with the iPod and the iPhone. But users who pay $99 a year for e-mail and productivity software services they could get from other sources (like Google) for free, won't be tolerant of service outages for very long. I know for myself, if a productivity software tool or service breaks down more than about twice, I'm moving on to their competitors,looking for an alternate solution.

Online services, like SaaS, cloud services, and Software+Services, bring new technical challenges, such as multi-tenancy, scalability and delivering services with high availability utilizing failover and redundancy. But downtime and service outages "happen," and can be caused by any number of factors, technologies and services providers involved in delivering online services. Microsoft's just now entering the fray itself with Office Workspace, Live SkyDrive, Live Mesh, hosted Microsoft Online Services and future cloud offerings from Microsoft's Software+Services initiatives.

Most of those Microsoft online services are still "beta," offered for free to users. Hosted Exchange and SharePoint will be one of the first to go "live" in October as a production, paid-for service. Can you imagine Microsoft Online Services (hosted Exchange and SharePoint) users will be any more tolerant of outages than Apple's MobileMe users? MobileMe users are half-blinded by their religious-like faith in Steve Jobs and anything sporting the Apple brand. But stop and think about how bad it is when Exchange is down inside your own business. There will be a bloodbath in the media every time Microsoft suffers some customer-impacting Exchange or SharePoint outage, no matter how small.

Maybe the question we should be asking is, Is Microsoft SaaS competent? Or, Has Microsoft learned from Apple's failures?

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