First let me preface this article by saying that although I believe SaaS, cloud services, and hosted services can be very good and wise decisions in some situations, in others they can also be very terrible options.
Not to rehash the past, but I wrote a previous post called What are the Risks of Cloud Services? I explain when it’s good to use hosted services and when it isn’t. They have a time and place, and running core and critical business functionality and data is generally a bad place to use cloud services. I won’t go into the same arguments again, I’ll just recommend you read the article if you haven’t already.
That being said, many people are about to be cut off from Google Reader at the end of the month. There’s only a few days more before their Google Reader service goes away for good. Luckily they gave us a month’s notice, but you can’t always expect this from every company. Additionally we’re very lucky that for most people this is a convenience rather than a critical service. Unlike say the core data for a property management company were you store your accounting, leases, tenants, late rents, etc., Google Reader is mainly just a place where you manage a large the reading of a large number of websites in a convenient and easy way. I personally use it and loved the service. I used it every day. I will definitely miss it.
The problem with a hosted service is that they decide when you can no longer use the service. NOT YOU!! It could be tomorrow, or in the case of Google they can give you a grace period to do what you need to. And in this case, we’re actually even more lucky in that Google offers the ability to backup the data. The big problem however is what do you do with the backed up data? It’s not an industry standard. Generally there is no way to backup the data, and in most cases you have no warning at all.
So what’s happened in the last while is that a bunch of people are trying to create products and services to fill in the void created by Google Readers dismisal. But before continuing, you should be congnicent that if it wasn’t such a big service from a big company, most likely the users of Google Reader would be out of luck with no alternatives. The norm for online services is that you lose everything when the service closes and you normally have no warning. It’s very very common! Just this month alone I personally read (who knows how many I didn’t see) about at least a dozen web services that have closed down on Hacker News which is a place where you can find a lot of interesting news from the Startup community.
One of the more poignants one that recently caught my attention and pretty much inspired this post was called My Startup Has 30 Days to Live. You can read the discussion from Hacker News here. Specifically one comment from patio11 drew my attention, also known as Patrick Mckenzie, where above suggesting they stop taking money unless it’s absolutely necessary to pay employees, he also said:
“It sucks. It will be better, very soon. You don’t have to be scared: this is routine and, while it doesn’t feel like it, you’re actually in very good position, both absolutely and relative to many other people.”
The key comment being “it’s routine”. That this is common. Many online companies close. The problem is that we haven’t experienced it as users enough yet. Much like most people don’t really realize computers and especially harddrives do fail, and quite often. I know more than a few people who have lost all their pictures and videos because they assumed computers just always worked and didn’t need to do any backups. Until digital cameras really became mainstream, most people didn’t really feel the pain when their computers failed because most of the data wasn’t as critical, or shall we say important to them. It’s different now, so people are going through an education process and are learning that you need to backup your data, that computers do fail and it can be very painful.
And with that in mind, I was quite surprised, well ok I wasn’t surprised by it but rather surprised that we’re still repeating the same mistakes when I read the following comment about one of the latest Google Reader replacement options called Sismics Reader which is a software you own and manage on your computer (I have not tried their software so I cannot say if they are good or not):
“This looks pretty promising. Judging from the demo, they have the UI close enough. They need to offer it as a service, though. I like that I have the freedom to run my own server, but I really don’t want to have to bother in practice.”
Basically you want to use a hosted services to replaced the hosted service that was just closed down and for which you’re now trying to scramble to find an alternative solution, because you were lucky enough to be able to backup your data, even if you have no place to restore it to yet.
Cloud and online services can be good in some situations, but we still have to learn that they have a place and time, and that time and place is NOT always!! We internally for LandlordMax use cloud and hosted services for a number of things including email delivery, email newsletter management, version control, and so on. But each of these systems can either be replaced within minutes to a day, or use a standard data structure where the data can also be pushed to another service right away. For example we use Subversion which is one of several industry standard systems for managing programming code. We do regular backups, and if our host goes away, we can move to another service within minutes. In fact we could host it internally on our own computers but we don’t for reasons that are more beneficial for us specifically. The key is that we’re not locked to the success of another company. Losing our programming code overnight would be catastrophic for us, so it’s critical that this data never be locked out. We need to make sure we have regular backups and alternatives should something happen.
With all that in mind I’m personally more interested in a Google Reader replacement that I can own and manage myself. There are just too many startups right now clamoring for Google’s fallout, and I suspect a LOT of them will be gone within the next year or two. And at that point, it’s right back to the very same situation as today. And the next time we may not be able to transfer the data to another solution. I don’t expect these new solutions will support each other’s data formats, assuming you can even export any data at all. At least with a software solution you own and manage you can continue using the software for as long as you need or want. If the company closes, discontinues the software, etc., you can still continue using the software for as long as you want. A small difference with a very big implication!
Online and cloud based solutions can be good, just be careful not to assume they are always good because this is not always the case. And if you haven’t already read my article about the risks and when it’s good and when it’s not good to use a hosted service, then I suggest you do so sooner than later.
And hopefully a good Google Reader alternative will appear soon. From what I’ve seen there hasn’t yet been a good solution to transition to yet. Every comment and suggestion I’ve seen so far about Google Reader alternatives has been about making due with what they have. There’s been no obvious goto solution yet. Right now it’s still really about just good enough until someone releases something worthwhile.
PS: In all this we never even mentioned issues such as what happens if you get locked out of your service. What if for example Google decided one day to lock you out of your Gmail account? What if your credit card failed and you didn’t notice until after they closed your account and deleted all your data? Just a few other things to look out for…