Crashing Websites, Grumbling Users: Obamacare's Debut Is a Typical Tech Launch

The insurance-exchange Internet site on Oct. 1 Photograph by Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

In the run-up to Tuesday’s launch of public health-insurance exchanges across the U.S., the Obama administration talked about its signature domestic achievement as though it were a product launch out of Silicon Valley. Eventually, government officials assured Americans, buying health insurance will be as easy as shopping on Kayak or Amazon. The analogy suggested that this morning’s online-exchange debut marks a kind of public beta period familiar from the world of tech startups: An unfinished product is launched and improved on the fly as early adopters suffer through and expose the initial flaws in the system.

“Hopefully they’ll give us the same slack as they give Apple,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters in the run-up to the launch.

She’s asking for a lot. As tech launches go, Obamacare has been pretty bumpy, if not a downright Fail Whale-style debacle. The federally run website was unresponsive for much of Tuesday morning, and only four of 15 exchange websites being run by states and the District of Columbia were working from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. In the days before the launch, meanwhile, insurers complained about errors in the premiums that shoppers would see online and certain functions had to be delayed because the software that determined eligibility remained a work-in-progress. (Even with problems, the new health-insurance exchanges compared favorably to the many other areas of the federal government that shut down completely this morning.)

Washington-as-tech-startup is an imperfect analogy. Launch dates aren’t generally codified into federal law. Nor do many startups deal with boards whose members compare a product launch to terrorist attacks and grind everything else to a halt if it goes through as planned. Also, people wear suits, instead of hoodies, and there are fewer free granola bars and foosball tables. But the idea of launching a website before it’s quite ready is a time-tested practice in tech. The question is how much damage the government will have done to itself by the time things are operating at full strength.

It’s worth remembering that we tend to give tech companies lots of leeway when they make us suffer through their growing pains. Apple’s mobile software may seem slick now, but you couldn’t even copy and paste text on an iPhone for over a year after the devices went on sale. And Obamacare’s exchanges weren’t the only hotly anticipated online environments sweating in the spotlight this week. A surge of traffic from people looking to play the online version of Grand Theft Auto V crashed the company’s servers.

Shawn Carolan, a tech investor whose own startup, Handle, is currently in beta, said that the key to getting people to forgive you for launching an imperfect product is being able to make changes quickly. ”The key to the beta is that you’re learning,” he said. “I can put out two or three releases a day when we’re moving fast.” Carolan doubts the federal government can reach that speed.

Washington still has a bit of time. Oliver Kharraz, one of the founders of health-care startup ZocDoc, argues that the insurance-exchange websites aren’t really the product being sold to Americans—it’s the idea of affordable health insurance and the legal incentives to buy some that are generating today’s Web traffic. Since people won’t be required to have coverage for several months hence, a few overwhelmed websites could be nothing more than an embarrassing blip so long as everything is up and running by December. If the websites can help insurance shoppers meet that deadline, the user experience doesn’t need to be Cupertino-level beautiful—just good enough to work.

The silver lining behind an awful first day could be that the bar is lowered, once people have something they can actually interact with. “Happiness,” says Kharraz, “equals reality minus expectations.”

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