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Services Will Fail You as the World Stays Home

A person holding a phone, with a loading icon over a streaming video.
Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

As COVID-19 spreads and wreaks havoc on our way of life, more and more people are staying home. That’s in part because companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are taking leadership roles. First, the companies asked employees to work remotely. Then, Apple and Microsoft closed up retail stores. Other companies have followed suit. However, a side effect has started rearings its ugly head: the services we rely on can’t handle the load of everyone who is home.

It started with Xbox Live, a service that provides online multiplayer access. The service went down, and players were unable to sign into their accounts or start online matches. Around the time that Xbox Live came back online,  Teams went down. On pretty much the first day of Europe working from home, Teams went down for hours.

Since then, we’ve seen Nintendo, Playstation, Discord, and even individual games like Call of Duty and Runescape (really!) buckle under increased load. And, online games aren’t the only services failing. In the past week, Reddit, Uber, T-Mobile, and even Google have all suffered outages.

Right about now, you may be asking, “What’s going on with the internet?” The short answer is, you are. And, everybody else, too.

The World Is Home and That’s Good and Bad

An illustration of the coronavirus, with red spikes.

You’re probably well aware of the coronavirus pandemic, and how it has rocked the nations. To slow the spread of the virus, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have directed employees to work from home.

That means for the first time, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of employees are attempting to work from home. Because of that shift, suddenly, productivity apps like Slack, Teams, and Zoom are seeing a surge in new users and new levels of simultaneous users.

At the same time, theaters, like Regal, AMC, and Cinemark, are now closed indefinitely. And, in some areas, restaurants, bars, gyms, and fitness centers shut their doors as well. Some retailers, like the Microsoft Store and Apple Store, also stopped operating and sent employees home.

And, for many users, working from home is impossible because of the type of work they do. With businesses shut down entirely, many people are just … home. That means more people are firing up YouTube, Netflix, Steam, Xbox, PlayStation, and more to find entertainment when traveling is not an option. Just ask Steam, which just broke new records for concurrent users.

And, that’s the problem! It isn’t that everyone is using these services for the first time. While apps like Teams, Slack, and Zoom are seeing a surge in downloads, the whole world isn’t going out and buying their first PlayStation. No, the problem is we usually take turns. Some work morning shifts, some work evening shifts, some only use Slack when they’re out of the office, and now they’re always out of the office.

Simultaneous use of all these services is way up, and frankly, Microsoft, Slack, Netflix, and others didn’t prepare for that level of usage.

To put this into simpler terms, suppose you have three popular community pools in your area that are open all summer long. Many days the pool you choose to use might be quite busy, but there’s probably plenty of room for all the swimmers. Now imagine that, with little warning, two of the pools shut down.

Suddenly, all the people who were using the three pools throughout the week converge on the one pool that’s now open. There wouldn’t be enough room in or around the pool for everyone, and there may not even be enough lifeguards on duty. Everything would be overwhelmed.

That’s not a perfect analogy of what’s happening now, but it should give you an idea.

Your Services Will Probably Fail, so Have a Backup Plan

The Flash Point board game set up on a table.
Here’s something that won’t stop working when the internet goes down. Josh Hendrickson / Review Geek

Take a look at the Downdetector Twitter page. In the past 24 hours alone, it lists entries for games, productivity apps, and even whole websites large and small that have experienced outages. If a service you rely on for work or entertainment hasn’t gone down yet, it probably will sooner or later.

So, you should have a plan in place for if and when that happens. You could try to take steps to alleviate the surge of users, like logging out of Slack when you finish work, but it’s unlikely enough people will do that to make a dent.

If your team works remotely through a chat app (like Slack or Teams), decide what to switch to right now if it goes down. Do you have access to more than one chat app? Move to the second, even if it’s Google Hangouts. You may find, as we do at Review Geek, that holding video calls for meetings works better than typing in Slack or phone calls anyway.

Or, worst-case scenario, you could always move back to email (assuming it’s still up). While it may not be as convenient and fast, it will get the job done.

If your favorite game is down, it’s time to move to a game you don’t play often. Pick something older and likely to see fewer players overwhelming the game’s online servers. The same goes for a game service if you own more than one console.

Another great option is to take your gaming offline—whether that’s through a single-player console game or out of the console spectrum entirely. Board Games don’t stop working when the internet goes out (unless it’s an internet-connected board game). If you’re home with family, now’s a good time to break out an analog game you haven’t played in ages. There are plenty of inexpensive board games and even great options for couples.

If you don’t have any now, maybe order one or two before you find your favorite PlayStation game is down for the count.

Are you a movie watcher? You have options, too. Theaters are closing, but Universal Pictures plans to let you rent current run movies from home. Between Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and more it’s more than likely at least one service will be up when others are down. If you’re an Amazon Prime Subscriber, you get access to Prime videos for no extra charge. And, YouTube, Plex, and Roku offer free movies with ads. And again, analog never goes down, worst case scenario you can always break out the DVDs and watch a favorite movie.

But for now, be safe and plan for the worst. It’s better to have plans you don’t need than to need plans you don’t have.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson is the Editor in Chief of Review Geek and is responsible for the site's content direction. He has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smart home enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »