As I was writing the two previous posts on online applications, I discovered that one I just learned about was no longer available. Earlier this summer, I was about to back up my life’s work to an online storage service, when I realized that their pricing had gone from $10/month to $49/month. Last winter, the Moodle community was stunned by the sudden shut-down of the web meeting service, DimDim.
How can this be? Why is this happening?
Well, you see, these online applications are typically in business to make money, just like you. They offer free services as a sort of “free sample”. If you like it, you’ll buy more. What happens is that not enough people buy to justify giving away any more samples. Perhaps the free-sample people take up more time and support resources than the people who pay for their accounts. Or, maybe the application is so awesome that some bigger company decides it would be a competitive advantage to own that code. They buy out CoolOnlineEditor.com. This is great for the college kid who wrote the code, but not so great for those of us who were using his online services. In some instances, a big, evil company comes along and buys out the really good application just so the rest of us cannot use it. Sad, but true.
For online services such as quick image editing, PDF printing, and screen casts, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to find another service. That shouldn’t slow you down too much.
If you use a social media service to aggregate your Twitter, Facebook, email, IM, etc…and that’s the only place you store your usernames and passwords, you’ll spend a lot of time recovering that information. Then you’ll have to spend some time finding and learning another application. This is annoying, but not too serious.
If the free (or inexpensive) photo gallery (or other document storage) system you use shuts down, this is just a pain in the neck if you have a copy of everything. If you don’t have a back-up, well, that’s catastrophic. Of course, big name sites (like Kodak and Google) are not as likely to shut down and leave you hanging as WeRCheap4Storage.com, but they do have a right to change their policies.
What is the risk?
Anything and everything online is at risk (although some risks are so low you might as well worry about a meteor strike). With downloaded software (resident on your computer), the worst thing that can happen is that it is no longer supported. Online, any service can:
- Stop taking registrations
- Discontinue features
- Start charging for features that were free or raise prices
- Disappear altogether (shut down the site) for any number of reasons. This is the worst because it can be without warning.
The more effort you put into building the content or customizing the online application, the more you stand to lose. A blog with 100 posts is far more difficult to rebuild than an online gallery of the photos you have duplicates of on your hard drive. The more you stand to lose, the more you should do to prevent any negative impacts on you.
What can you do?
For any and all of it, back up anything you can. Keep it stored where you can easily recover it and restore functionality as quickly as possible.
For the more content-rich applications, the ones you depend on heavily, and/or those that will take you a lot of time to set up or customize to your needs, do your homework before investing that time. Read reviews at CNET, PC Magazine, PCWorld, SourceForge, industry-specific publications, and of course, online searches for specific functionality. Choose a stable application (one that has good reviews from users and IT experts alike and has been around “a while”) and back up your content regardless of how good they are!
Platforms such as Moodle, Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal are probably here to stay, but is your host? Even though I know my sites are backed up and protected as much as humanely possible, I still back up the content, copies of which I keep copies on my local drives. I would never risk a free hosting service unless it was associated with an organization I had plenty of confidence in.
We live in a rapidly changing world, which is both good and bad. Nowadays, there is such a thing as a “free lunch” – for a time anyway.
The lesson is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The more dependent you are on an application, the more important it is that you a) make sure you have a recovery plan if that application shuts down and b) investigate the options so that your choice of application is based on something other than “it’s free”.