I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Your favorite Thursday sandwich

I usually agree with Om Malik, but not this time, on why he won’t use Google Keep, Google’s new Evernote clone:

It might actually be good, or even better than Evernote. But I still won’t use Keep. You know why? Google Reader.

I spent about seven years of my online life on that service. I sent feedback, used it to annotate information and they killed it like a butcher slaughters a chicken. No conversation — dead. The service that drives more traffic than Google+ was sacrificed because it didn’t meet some vague corporate goals; users — many of them life long — be damned.

Looking from that perspective, it is hard to trust Google to keep an app alive. What if I spend months using the app, and then Google decides it doesn’t meet some arbitrary objective?

In this business, you can’t count on anything having longevity. To avoid new services that are likely to get shut down within a few years, you’d have to avoid every new tech product. Products and services lasting more than a few years are the exception, not the rule.

And unfortunately for users, Google doesn’t owe anyone a “conversation” about what they do with their products. Companies can do whatever they want. They could shut down Gmail tomorrow if it made business sense. There wouldn’t be a conversation.

Users have no power.

We can complain about Google Reader’s shutdown and start as many online petitions as we think will make a difference,1 but we all have short memories and can’t resist free stuff.

Want to really stick it to them? Stop using Google. All of it. Search, Gmail, Maps, the works. Delete your account and start using Bing. Ready?

Yeah. That’s the problem. You won’t. I won’t. Nobody will.

It’s not just Google. Everyone does this. Facebook introduces some giant privacy invasion or horrible redesign every six months, then when its users “revolt”, they roll back some of it, and everyone forgets about it because they got what they wanted: Facebook still accomplished most of what they wanted to do, and the users feel like they matter. Almost nobody left Twitter when they started screwing over their API developers, almost nobody switches away from iOS when Apple controversially rejects an app, and almost nobody stopped going to your corner deli after they raised the price of your favorite Thursday sandwich.

They’re not all evil or mean — business owners often need to make decisions that anger some people. That’s the nature of business, government, parenthood, and life. Facebook and Google need to collect more of your personal data and keep you on their sites longer so they can keep increasing their ad revenue. Twitter needs to take control of its product and its users’ attention away from third-party clients so it doesn’t become an unprofitable dumb pipe like AOL Instant Messenger. Apple needs to keep the App Store locked down so people feel safe buying apps (and more iOS devices) and developers are forced to use Apple’s services, APIs, and stores. Your corner deli needed to raise the price of your favorite Thursday sandwich because their health-insurance premium increased by 10% this year. The deli’s health-insurance company needed to raise premiums by 10% because that’s the most that New York State would permit, and how would the insurance company’s CEO justify not taking that opportunity for more profits to the board and shareholders?

That’s business.

Google Keep will probably get as many users as Google’s other low-priority side projects: not many. They’ll probably shut it down within two years. A few people will complain then, too, and they’ll be powerless then, too, but they’ll keep using Google’s stuff after that, too.

Users need to be less trusting of specific products, services, and companies having too much power over their technical lives, jobs, and workflows.

In this business, expect turbulence. And this is going to be increasingly problematic as (no turbulence pun intended) we move so much more to “the cloud”, which usually means services controlled by others, designed to use limited or no local storage of your data.

Always have one foot out the door. Be ready to go.

This isn’t cynical or pessimistic: it’s realistic, pragmatic, and responsible.

If you use Gmail, what happens if Google locks you out of your account permanently and without warning? (It happens.) What if they kill IMAP support and you rely on it? Or what if they simply start to suck otherwise? How easily can you move to a different email host?2 How much disruption will it cause in your workflow? Does your email address end in What would have happened if we all switched to Wave? What happens if Facebook messages replace email for most people?

Proprietary monocultures are so harmful because they hinder or prevent you from moving away.

This is why it’s so important to keep as much of your data as possible in the most common, widespread, open-if-possible formats, in local files that you can move, copy, and back up yourself.3 And if you care about developing a long-lasting online audience or presence, you’re best served by owning your identity as much as possible.

Investing too heavily in someone else’s proprietary system for too long rarely ends gracefully, but when it bites us, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

  1. Has an online petition ever effected change? (The vague, unquantifiable, feel-good fallback of “raising awareness” doesn’t count.) ↩︎

  2. This is why I don’t use Gmail↩︎

  3. I don’t mind using Dropbox because it’s compatible with responsible practices. If Dropbox goes away, you still have a folder full of files, and there will always be other ways to sync folders full of files between computers. Even if Dropbox’s client somehow screws up and deletes all of its files, you can just restore them from a backup, because it’s just a folder full of regular files on your computer.

    When most “cloud” companies or proprietary platforms cease to exist, they fall out of the sky like a plane without power, and everything is lost. Dropbox failing or ceasing to exist would be more like a train losing power: it stops moving, but everything’s still there and everyone’s fine, albeit mildly inconvenienced. ↩︎