By Jon Hood

December 10, 2009
Palm and Sprint Nextel are the targets of a class action suit that accuses the companies of failing to mitigate flaws in Palm's webOS network that led to catastrophic data losses, while marketing the devices as being able to back up the very data that ended up being wiped out.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, says that a badly-designed data backup system caused consumers to lose crucial data, noting that many webOS device users suffered and continue to suffer significant and permanent data loss, including but not limited to the loss of instant messages, emails, calendar entries, contacts in their address books and applications paid for and downloaded from the Palm App Catalog.

Ironically, the losses were caused by webOS's automatic data backup system, which allows users to move data from one device to another most commonly if their phone is lost or stolen and can't be accessed directly, or if they exchange it for a new one. Lead plaintiff Jason Standiford was done in by the latter situation. Standiford had already experienced myriad problems with Palms when he exchanged his fourth malfunctioning device for a new one.

The fifth time wasn't the charm for Standiford, though. After completing a warranty exchange because of a power-button malfunction on his previous phone, Standiford tried to load his existing data onto his new Palm, but was only able to access four of the hundreds of contacts he had stored on his old phone. Worse, he only gained access to three memos he had written, despite having saved many more.

The next day, Standiford, as was now his habit, trudged back to the Sprint store to try to transfer his data from his old Palm to his new one. In the process, a well-meaning Sprint representative managed to erase all the data from Standiford's old phone. Sprint was able to recover some of Standiford's data, but a good chunk is now gone for good.

The suit says that Sprint and Palm specifically marketed the phones as able to automatically back up users' crucial data, but failed to anticipate or fix problems with the system. Indeed, Standiford went with a Palm in part because of the representations made by Sprint and Palm's [sic] that the Palm system would backup his data for him, and that if his phone became lost or was damaged, Sprint would restore all of that data to a new or existing device.

The problem lies with webOS's unique data synchronization techniques, according to the suit. Most mobile devices allow users to back up data directly to their personal computers; webOS, by contrast, syncs consumers' devices with Palm's servers every 24 hours. Every time the data is re-synced, though that is, every 24 hours the older data is overwritten and rendered irretrievable.

Sprint and Palm apparently failed to anticipate any problems with this arrangement; the suit says that neither Palm nor Sprint retains any backup data for more than 24 hours at a time. Compounding the problem, the companies don't provide any software that would allow consumers to backup their own data.

The suit shines additional light on the dangers of living in a paperless world, even if that notion is largely a myth, and comes just two months after T-Mobile Sidekick users lost contacts, photos, and other data due to a server crash.

The action anticipates a class of anyone in the U.S. who created Palm webOS profiles, stored data on their Palm, and suffered permanent data loss. The suit accuses Sprint and Palm of negligence, breach of contract, and violation of several California consumer protection laws.