Saturday, July 12, 2008

How an iPhone debut is like an election

I'm an iPhone junkie. I waited in line yesterday morning to get my iPhone, but I only had two hours, and after my time was up, I had made only minor progress, while the line grew pretty long behind me, so I abandoned my newfound iPhone junkie friends and left the Apple store (well, the line outside the Apple store) empty handed. Only later did I learn that the line was moving so slowly because of glitches in the system caused by so many simultaneous activations. John Markoff said it well in his NYT article today.

The setback was a classic example of the problems that can follow when complex systems have single points of failure. In this case, the company appeared to almost invite the problems by having both existing and new iPhone owners try to get through to its systems at the same time. 'There are certainly lessons in preparedness,' said Richard Doherty, a consumer electronics industry consultant who is president of the Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y. He compared the day with Christmas morning, “the acid test for many years” for electronics companies because customers contact them in droves after opening presents and trying to get gadgets to work.

Of course, the Apple problems, as described in this article, are instructive when considering using electronic systems in elections. The debut of the Apple iPhone caused an unprecedented stress on their system on a single day, and there was no way for Apple to stress test their system in preparation for that day. I'm sure they performed many tests, and they clearly had plenty of notice to prepare for yesterday, and still, the system failed in unexpected ways when faced with the actual flash crowd of iPhone enthusiasts. That's not to say such a system will always fail. Sometimes it will work fine. But the takeaway from this is that a large, complex system, such as an election, running on a particular day, with no opportunity for a realistic to-scale test, may fail on election day in ways that cannot be predicted.

For this reason, it is important to keep systems as simple as possible, plan for contingencies, and assume the worst might happen. If it does not, there will have been no harm in having been prepared. But in the unfortunate circumstance where things do fail, as they did yesterday for Apple, we will all be better off for having been cautious.