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A Brief History of Internet Outages

Someday we’ll all tell our grandkids about what we were doing during the great Gmail outage of August 11th, 2008. Well, okay, probably not–Google’s e-mail service was down for only a couple of hours, which is relatively brief as Internet outages go. But when one of the world’s most popular mail systems goes missing even briefly, zillions of people are inconvenienced and want to share their frustration. In a weird way, it’s a huge compliment: If Gmail wasn’t essential, nobody would care if it went away.

For a dozen years or so now, the Internet has been a mainstream communications medium, and its history has been pockmarked with examples of big-time services choking for extended periods–often a lot longer than today’s Gmail blip. The most famous examples of unplanned downtime have a lot in common: They usually last longer than anyone expected and get blamed on cryptic technical glitches. Almost always, angry consumers announce they’re done with the service in question; almost always, the service eventually recovers.

Oh, and one more thing: The biggest and most embarrassing failures all seem to happen during the summer months. Maybe technology, like human beings, just doesn’t work quite as hard when the weather’s hot and there are distractions like baseball games, picnics, and vacations to contemplate.

Now that Gmail’s back, it’s worth recapping a few other outages that made headlines when they happened–and since the ones that follow are in alphabetical order, they begin with maybe the most famous one of all (hint: it involved a company whose initials are A.O.L.)…

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