America Online, the nation's largest online provider, went black for 19 hours yesterday, leaving its 6 million subscribers without the connections they have come to depend on. Some read books. Others, however, were helpless as businesses--and correspondences--hit a snag. Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to Wall Street Journal technology editor Dennis Kneale about what happened, who it happened to, and how AOL plans to regain the trust of its customers.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For 19 hours yesterday, the world's largest online service shut down, the biggest blackout in cyberspace history. This unexpected bump along the information superhighway left 6 million America online subscribers lost in space, but it affected others as well. Here to tell us more is Dennis Kneale, technology editor at the Wall Street Journal. Thank you for joining us, Dennis. What exactly happened yesterday in AOL cyberspace, without getting too technical?
DENNIS KNEALE, Wall Street Journal: (New York) Well, that's the hard part, without getting too technical. In the simplest terms what happened to AOL is what happens to computers anywhere in America on any given day. It's a software bug. What happened is engineers were working at 4 o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday on these middle-sized computers called servers.
And these computers are like rapid-fire machine guns. And they take information from really, really big computers called host computers, and then they zap it out to little computers on your desk top and my desk top and 6 million other desk tops where people want to get hold of information. They do this upgrade. They're trying to improve and get some housekeeping to the routers, something goes terribly wrong.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that's the something we don't want to get too detailed about, right?
MR. KNEALE: Well, basically what happened is while they're working on the mid-sized computers, another part of America Online starts sending computer directions to these, to these so-called switches or routers saying, oh, here's the directions for the coming day, here's where traffic will go and how it will route. Those directions turn out to be wrong. So when America Online turns those routers on again, the routers can't even talk to one another, and the engineers are saying something is wrong here, some of the housekeeping that we were doing we must have made a mistake, and they spend hours scrambling around trying to figure out what they did wrong when it turns out it was just the wrong directions from that other part of America Online.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So would you call it a human error or a computer error or--
MR. KNEALE: The company is saying it's a combination of some computer error, because there also was an error in some of the software that runs these routers, and also a human error, because they kind of were looking, as one reporter for the Journal put it, they were looking for the problem to the right when suddenly it turned out the problem was coming from the left.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give us some idea about who was affected and how.
MR. KNEALE: I don't think that all six million subscribers to America Online are getting online every day. So it's not like it affected 6 million. But whatever portion of subscribers--let's say 20 percent get online at a given time--they were unable to hook up to America Online at all. Now these people are avid communicators, and they've come to revel in sending electronic mail messages out and taking part in chat sessions. Yesterday they were frustrated and unable to do that at all. For small businesses that actually use AOL and some big business employees for communication to talk to clients, to talk to employees on the road, to swap messages, they were unable to use AOL at all.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Was there anything really serious that happened as a result of this?
MR. KNEALE: Not truly, at least not that we've found. Basically, it's a major pain and an inconvenience. What's going to be interesting to watch now is the company has said, we're sorry, and we'll credit you for one day of usage. Now that amounts to about 30 to 60 cents. When a waitress brings you the wrong entree in a restaurant, sometimes she offers you dessert for free. 30 cents is not going to leave a whole lot of subscribers feeling very good about it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But were there any businesses that had serious disruptions--because I understand there were, you know, check transfers, all this sort of thing--was there anything like that that you know of?
MR. KNEALE: I'm sure that some small businesses or some large businesses had a tougher time getting some things done as efficiently. The nice thing about electronic mail and zapping a document across the network is it's a lot simpler, a lot more instant than having to pick up the phone and reach somebody or having to send it out on a fax machine.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. But in the total--
MR. KNEALE: So it's some inconvenience.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the total scheme of things, it wasn't a big deal?
MR. KNEALE: This is not catastrophic. This is a black eye for America Online at a time when this service needs to lure millions of more newcomers who aren't comfortable with computers and who aren't comfortable with online services, you should come jump aboard. And now the customers are going to say, well, I'm not so sure I should.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, then are you saying--does this--does this bode ill for future situations? I mean, are there going to be more glitches like this in the future, do you think, not just on America Online but in general?
MR. KNEALE: I'm sure that America Online is doing everything it can to stop glitches like this from happening again. It's almost a fact of life. Computers are both incredibly complex and yet incredibly stupid, and mistakes like this are going to happen. One thing that this shows is how much getting online has become a way of life for many people in this country. I think that two years ago if you had a big story like this, first of all, it wouldn't have been covered on the front pages, it would have been in the back pages for three paragraphs, and second of all, half your readers wouldn't have even known what an online service was. When something like this happened yesterday, you could suddenly see how much online is becoming a part of American society.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And so we can, umm--I mean, in general, we can look for the good with the bad in the future, right?
MR. KNEALE: Well, we certainly can. The company is oddly finding a silver lining in this. The president of the company keeps saying, hey, one good thing about this is we see how important America Online is, the fact that so many people were so upset about not being able to communicate with their computers, although crisis management consultants say that's not exactly a good argument to be making at a time like this.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we have to go. Thank you for joining us.
MR. KNEALE: Thank you.