Microsoft surprised the photography and tech communities last week by rolling out Photosynth, an innovative hybrid application for building 3-D environments out of overlapping photos.

But it seems no one was quite as surprised as Microsoft at Photosynth's popularity. The Photosynth site was overwhelmed shortly after launch and Microsoft took it offline Friday to add capacity.

Early Friday morning, a blog post hinted that Microsoft was not quite ready for the onslaught of "synths," as the creations are called. "We have been overwhelmed (in both good and bad ways) over the past 24 hours with the amount of interest Photosynth has attracted and the amount of creativity that many of you are demonstrating with your synths," the post read. "We've been working very hard to meet your expectations and learning and growing along the way. So how has the first day gone, you ask? Well, as of 1 a.m. (Pacific), more than 7,727 synths have been created containing 286,689 images."

By Friday night, less than 48 hours after launching the site, Microsoft announced, "We're changing out some hardware and adding capacity. We'll go offline around 11:30 p.m. PST (7:30 a.m. GMT) for about 30 minutes."

Dark Clouds Ahead?

The root of the problem is that Photosynth is yet another cloud application, where users both create and store files remotely, on Microsoft's servers. In an earlier era, the company would have sold the software and let users store images on their own hard drives, resorting to bulletin boards or Web sites to share their creations. By centralizing both the user interface and storage, Microsoft is building an online property but has to foot the infrastructure bill itself.

In the aftermath of well-reported failures with Apple's MobileMe and Amazon's S3 services, does Photosynth's brief failure add more evidence to the argument that cloud computing is not ready for prime time?

Not really, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology consulting firm. "While there appear to be similarities between Photosynth, Apple and Amazon S3, I believe they reflect three different situations," King said in an e-mail.

Communication and Follow-Up

In contrast to Apple's handling of the MobileMe fiasco, Microsoft reacted quickly and transparently to problems with the Photosynth site.

"Apple's initial silence to complaints about iPhone 3G and MobileMe performance stirred up a hornet's nest," King said. And Apple had asked customers to entrust it with personal data, which in some cases it lost. "The net result? Two needlessly blackened eyes for Apple's reputation and at least one executive hung out to dry," King said.

As for Amazon, the company had been pitching lower levels of reliability as good enough. "S3's performance should offer Amazon and its customers a chance to determine if the company's claims are correct," King said.

What Microsoft did wrong with Photosynth was to underestimate demand and infrastructure needs. Beyond that, it handled the situation well, King said. "They responded quickly, explained clearly what was happening, and instituted a fix. Yes, the company ran into problems, but I'd give Microsoft an A for its response efforts," King said.

In any case, the recent problems "shed some healthy light on what it takes to institute and support cloud service offerings in the real world," King said. Events like these should help ensure that companies and customers are better prepared in the future, King said.