Thursday, March 21, 2013

On the impermanence of the online life.

Google is discontinuing Google Reader, a service I, and many others, have been using to follow large amounts of RSS feeds. It got "spring cleaned", as it's isn't a core part of their online business. Fair enough, though a major pain for me.

Also, Google just announced Google Keep, an online note-taking and keeping service. This is not part of their core business either, and was preceded by Google Notebook, which was much the same thing but discontinued about a year ago. In my mind it's not a matter of if  Keep will disappear, but when. Just Like Google Notebook or Google Reader — Or, for that matter, Apple Me; all cloud companies do this.

I rely on Gmail Tasks, but that overlaps quite a bit with Keep. And it has not seen any updates or attention in a long time. Google Sites, which I use for a landing page, is similarly semi-abandoned, so both seem destined for the trash heap shortly. If you rely on Tasks or Sites directly or for syncing apps you probably need to look into alternatives very soon.

A specialized online service like Evernote will not cancel their main product of course, so they may seem safer. But they can go bankrupt; they can get bought up and disappeared (Evernote for Windows phones only?); and they can change direction, turning their app into something you don't need and don't want. With online-based systems we have no control.

We have no control. When it's online, when it's in the cloud, all decisions are out of our hands. Fair enough, you might say; it's these companies that foot the bill. True, but that doesn't change the basic fact that you can't rely on online services for anything that is really important. And especially so if it will be important for years to come.

I'm not thinking about games or social media or things like that. We can lose our G+, Twitter or Facebook accounts without losing anything very important. But would you want to keep your financial records or email love letters from your wife with an online service that might not be around next year? If you deposit hard-won experimental data to an online repository — or make use of data stored there — can you really trust you can access it in twenty years?

I'm also becoming afraid of the trend towards computers or software that can only be used online. Google Chrome is the prime example — I would never rely on it for anything of importance as you can't know any of the tools are available a few years from now — but Apple and Microsoft is rapidly moving in the same direction.

I realize that I'm more exposed to this problem than I like. Some online things like Google+ or file sharing are either just fun diversions or generic and easy to replace. But this Blogger blog or my Flickr account would be very painful to lose. It would be a lot of work to move somewhere else, and I'd lose all the links and regular visitors. Gmail would also be painful, but it's more or less the public junk drawer of my online life, so abandoning it would probably turn out as a blessing in disguise.

So, what to do? From now on I will make a point of using mainly offline tools when I can. Desktop notes rather than online, for instance, and choose applications that sync in a generic or standardized way, rather than rely on a single company's service.

For things that must be online, I think that perhaps a server of my own might not be a bad idea. A debian server image with my own domain name can be hosted anywhere; could even keep it at home, though we'd have to change our ISP for that. I could have a photo gallery and a mirror of my blog there, along with a calendar, RSS reader, home page and file synchronization. With my own domain name, I could replace most of Gmail with my own address, and leave Gmail for public-facing junk. I wouldn't replace this blog or other online things so much as keep a live back-up just in case.

Has anybody set up something like that? I want to regain control over my digital live; I'm not sure of the best way to do so.


torbengb said...

I completely understand and agree with your concerns about having our personal data "out there" and outside our control.

It's convenient but not very safe.

The challenge is that safeguarding your stuff is hard work, and if anything needs adjusting/updating/repairing then *you* are the responsible person so you must have the time and the skills to fix it.

The average IT user is not a fully trained system administrator, so maintaining one's own server is risky. What's more risky: relying on your limited IT skills, or relying on third parties (whether using Google services, or renting a private server in a data center to run your own services) That's an individual assessment of course.

Most people obviously choose to rely on application providers like Google. True hard-core geeks run their own hardware in their own home. And in between, some people run their own services on rented servers in a data center.

The latter might be the best balance between control and responsibility: you decide what services you run, but you have to install and maintain them yourself (or pay the data center for maintenance). But at least you don't have to worry about the hardware itself; replacing faulty hard drives or power supplies, ensuring Internet access and firewalls and so on.

It all boils down to two questions:
1) How lazy (=vulnerable) are you?
2) Are you skilled enough to not be lazy?

Jim P said...

I don't leave much to chance when it comes to my data. While I have uploaded pictures and such to places like facebook or photobucket, I never upload anything I really care about and want to make sure I keep for a long time.

I have two desktops, two laptops, a phone, tablet, and gaming console, all which have data that needs stored. Rather than keeping copies on all devices, and rather than leaving my data at the whim of online companies, I built a NAS. Now I have quite a large amount of storage space (5.2tb formatted) that is fault-tolerant. For data that I can't afford to lose, I make sure to keep a weekly backup in my car (luckily this dataset can fit on one cd), and make a monthly backup which I leave at my parents house. For non-essential data, I have a backup copy at the house, but if I lose it, no big deal, I know where I can get it again.

If you're handy with the openBSD operating system, check out the FreeNAS os. It's a free, BSD-based, low overhead, NAS os that works pretty well. I'm a Windows guy, but I was able to figure out how to set it up.

Or, if you'd rather not deal with building a nas and maintaining it, a store-bought external backup works great (I think Lacie makes some 2-disk raid1 units).

At the end of the day, it boils down to whether I want to build/maintain my own unit, buy a pre-made unit, or trust an online company to house my data. I'll keep my data to myself thank you very much.

Jan Moren said...

My worry isn't really my ability to run my own server; I have a decent grasp of the issues, and learning to do it properly would be fun. My worry is rather that I have only limited time to spend on hobbies, and if I decide to do this I'll have to cut down on something else.

Another solution could be to spread the risk by relying on more than one company. Have a second web mail provider, for instance, and splitting my email use between it and gmail. If either is lost I have the other already up and running.

Erik said...

I've been thinking about this too, and I really don't want to trust cloud services with anything particularly important anymore.

However, as long as a given cloud service supports exporting your data in a useful format it's not that bad.

Leaving Google Reader was not that difficult for me, since I have only used it for simply reading feeds (perhaps a few times starring items), and exporting and importing my feeds was easier than I thought. For the time being I'm fine with using a feed reader (switched to RSSOwl) on my laptop only, but that will probably change. Keeping my own private server would be handy, and I will probably set one up eventually.

I'm thinking a simple solution would be to install some Linux distribution on the server and enable ssh with X-forwarding so that one could ssh -X to the server from a client computer. With today's generally fast connections it might work reasonably well, and setting it up wouldn't be particularly difficult. If one would want to connect to the server from some electronic appliance (like a tablet) things would get more complicated though.

Our Man in Abiko said...

I don't have the technical aptitude to make running my own server a very sensible option, but Google's killing of Reader and a recent run-in with the inflexibility of PayPal has slapped a little of the complacency and laziness out of me. I don't have vast fields of data to save, so just copying what I've got to a couple of memory sticks is good for me. When Google decides that blogger and gmail are no longer core to its business model, then it's time to lock myself in my dusty library and disconnect the computer.

Jan Moren said...

I'm torn about this as well. I realize that just because I can run my own server it doesn't mean I should. I'm far more likely to lose my services due to my own ineptitude than I would be losing them because Google cancels a project.

But I'm acutely uncomfortable with continuing like this. I really dislike the loss of control, but I frankly have no idea what to do about it.

One approach would be to simply do less: close my Flickr account, this blog, and anything else that's not necessary. It would give me a bit more peace of mind, along with more time for offline hobbies. Not going to do that of course, but it is worth a thought.

Eric said...


For offline note-taking I recommend the program zim (, which is available in Debian variants like Ubuntu.

Jan Moren said...

Zim looks good; thanks. Now, if it could only sync with an Android app as well...

Eric said...

There is a program called zimdroid which is under development, so one may be able to do that before long.

Also, you've probably thought of this already, but rather than getting your own server, you could convert your blog to a static site with something like Pelican for Python, and then just rsync it to a web host. That way you would always have a local copy, and you wouldn't have to worry about maintaining something complicated.

Jan Moren said...

I did something like that with the previous incarnation of this blog. Had some software I'd written myself that created static pages from my text and uploaded text and images to a webserver. Used an email-based interface for comments.

It worked OK, but a real blogging platform is just much more convenient. I would not want to go back to hat way of working. And there's no real reason; it'd be the same cost and effort to get and keep a static website as one with a blogging platform installed.

I do have backups of everything I write, by the way. I write all posts offline, and just cut and paste the finished text into Blogger at the end.