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Looking for alternatives: or, the cloud is fine, but what if it rains

This post stems out of Google's prank today; when they announced that YouTube will be shut down until 2023. Of course, they meant it as a prank, but considering their disturbing trend of shutting down services... well, let's just say that I did not find it the most attractive prank.

I've written earlier (during the GMail account fiasco) about Google's model, and why users who don't pay any cash directly for services are useful to Google. In this post, I try and lay out some pitfalls of killing off young services.

Google aims to build a moat around it's search and advertisement business. It tries to do so by ensuring that users always use Google for search; which increases revenues through advertisement. Good search results are ones that are personalised, so that the user gets what he wants without a lot of keyword-jugglery that was needed a decade ago. Indeed, a decade ago, I remember going as far as page 10 in search results to find the information I needed, now, I never go beyond the first page. This is partly because Google has accumulated a tonne of data about my browsing habits, from my email stored on its servers, and from my search queries, which identify me uniquely because I am logged into GMail all the time.

I can say that I have invested a lot of time and effort in Google's services. Heck, I'm more active on Google Plus than Facebook, despite the fact that most of my friends are on Facebook, and I'm left interacting with complete strangers on Google Plus. I advocate Google's products vehemently to people I know; I spend time setting them up to use Google services; that they may be more productive. So imagine my surprise/annoyance when I find out that after having introduced mum to Google Reader, and having set it up to follow sites that she read, I find out that Google is shutting down the service.

I have close to 70 sites that I follow on Reader. Some of them include blogs written by friends, which, like this blog, post spontaneously, sporadically, and generally have interesting content which I would not like to pass. I follow syndicated and web comics every day, which give me my daily dose of humour. It's just stupid having to visit each site to check for updates; and subscribing via email will quickly get me overwhelmed. In short, I depended on Google Reader to simplify the tonne of miscellaneous reading that I do every day. In one single announcement, Google turned this well-settled life upside down. Immediately, I began to scramble to find an alternative service to Reader; I needed it to be web-based, because I use 4 OSes, and 6 browsers to access the web at any time. Any desktop app would not do. They have to sync with each other. I don't want to log into Windows after two months of using Ubuntu, to find 4000 unread articles which I've already read on Ubuntu, or on my phone.

I was in a similar predicament when Google announced that they were pulling the plug on Wave. Now, I know that Wave wasn't the most popular service out there, but I had developed a workflow that involved Wave in a big way. Wave was an excellent way to collaborate, share ideas, and track tasks in a team. All my projects had associated Waves; and Wave kind of functioned like a journal. With Wave retired (or should I say executed?), I began the mad scramble of getting my data out from Wave. Unfortunately, I could only get rather pathetically formatted PDFs out of the export functionality, I cannot import them to any other service, and they're worse than print-outs. Well, when Google pulled the plug on Buzz, I doubt that they even offered print-outs of your data. :P

People say that the cloud is the next big thing. I'd agree that the cloud is a very convenient way to access data, especially considering the plethora of computers that we carry around with us, in the forms of desktops, laptops, phones, tablets; and yet never notice the difference. I have long since given up a desktop email application in favour of web based email. I'm moving all my documents to the cloud, either using Dropbox or Google Drive. Yet, I also cherish a secret ambition, to have my own server, and my own micro-cloud, which will serve me and me alone; a service that will offer me access to MY email, documents, music, movies (DRM free), web-feeds and much more; but which leaves ME in control of my data and services. No more worrying about crazy executives on Coke (or Pepsi?) pulling the plug on services that I have come to depend upon.

The only thing that prevents me from making the plunge? The fact that I'd probably have to buy hosting space from a company; and that I will have to worry about security, have to maintain a lot of applications, and that I will spend more time worrying about things that I should not have to worry about if I want to get the job done.

And thus I find myself in a quandary. Should I invest any more time in setting up new cloud based services that promise to make my job easier? Or should I invest time and money in moving away from the cloud, in favour of software, devices, and services which I can control?

Google has definitely shaken my trust in it's services. After close to 7 years of banking with Google, I feel it is time to close shop, and seek greener pastures. I don't think I can bear the heartbreak of seeing yet another service I love and have come to depend upon bite the dust. This probably means that I'm one less user to enthusiastically try out a new service offered by Google; which means that Google may just end up killing more services. I doubt that any company can survive when the trust of regular users is eroded. Is Google heading the wrong way, becoming an arrogant, overbearing giant, unconcerned with the wants and needs of its users? What do you think?

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