'Trapped data' raises switching barrier to newer, sometimes better services

'Trapped data' raises switching barrier to newer, sometimes better services

Summary: There's something overwhelming about Mike Arrington's writeup of zooomr: a socialized photo sharing site that Arrington calls "Flickr on steroids."  Maybe it's the part about how the developer of it -- Kristopher Tate -- is 17 years old.

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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There's something overwhelming about Mike Arrington's writeup of zooomr: a socialized photo sharing site that Arrington calls "Flickr on steroids."  Maybe it's the part about how the developer of it -- Kristopher Tate -- is 17 years old.  Or, maybe it's that awful Ghost of Christmas-past feeling that history is about to repeat itself.  In fact, it is.  So, both are a bit overwhelming.

If you've been a techie for any length of time -- and many of you who read ZDNet have been -- As long as that magic button doesn't exist, switching is too hard. then you're familiar with the old question that friends and family used to ask you about PCs: "Should I by one now, or wait?"  No one wants that terrifying feeling that many have experienced right after they've purchased their computer: the one where, had they just waited a month or two, they could have had something two times (or ten times) better for about the same price (and often less).  Your heart just wants to sink after this happens to you.  Out of fear that my friends or family members would disown me for steering them down this path of obsolescence, I've often refrained from answering that question with anything but "That problem never goes away so you might as well make a decision."  But it's usually not good enough.  Since you're the guru, they expect you to know when that golden moment will arrive; the one where they get just the right system at just the right price at just the right time where no better deal or significantly technologically superior system will appear on the market for another 6 months to a year.  It's a no-win situation.

Not to single out Flickr.  It's a fantastic site and I love it.  I use it.  Sparingly. To me, selecting online photo sharing services like Flickr is like picking that next computer, only worse.  In fact, this problem is true of just about any software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering.  Not just photo sharing.  For example, there's the hotly contested CRM market where Salesforce.com competes.  And then there are all the Web-based blogging services offerings from companies like SixApart.  These and Flickr are best of breed offerings today that I'd have no trouble using or  recommending.  But what about  tomorrow?  One reason I say its worse is because, as Kristopher Tate clearly proves with zooomr, innovation in software can happen faster than it can with hardware, it comes from many more sources, and, in terms of timing, it can come out of nowhere (in terms of the surprise element).   With hardware, there are relatively few producers of chips.  We know who they are and we have a rough idea of when the next big leap is coming.  With software,... well, the world is a big place and there are a lot of developers in it and we haven't clue what most of them are up to.

At first glance, when someone like Kristopher Tate comes along with something so game changing, our instincts are to say that the rest of the pack is in trouble.  In the headline to his post, Michael Arrington wrote  "Flickr has some catching up to do."  Indeed, it does.  But is zooomr really a threat to Flickr?  No.  Not until it can make switching easy.  And therein lies the rub.   With most SaaS offerings, once they have our data -- be it our photos, our customer data, our blog entries, etc. -- switching is lot easier said than done.  In the old days, it was no big deal to switch to a new type of photo album. At least you could keep them all on your bookshelf.  But, today, my wife and I have got hundreds of pictures stored on Ofoto.com, thousands of photos on  Webshots.com, and probably about 100 or so over at Flickr.  Webshots belongs to CNET Networks (parent to ZDNet) and, as an employee of CNET, I get a discount to some of Webshots' services.

When Flickr first came along and changed the game, it left me wanting for more from Webshots and I used it when there was a feature I desperately needed that Webshots didn't have (eg: embedding the image in a blog on another site).  But was I really going to switch? Not a chance. Not as long as Webshots is like that bookshelf in the study -- the one with all my pictures on it.  Not as long as Flickr doesn't have a magic button that says "Webshots Customers click here."  I'm pretty sure there are others out there who are just like me.  Ten years from now, they don't want their photos scattered across 20 different sites just because they couldn't resist the next big thing.  My wife and I are already unsettled over the idea that the recent photographic history of our lives is spread across three different Web sites. 

Without that magic button that perfectly moves every bit of data from one service to another, our basic feeling is that we'll wait as long as it takes for the service where the bulk of our photos are stored -- Webshots -- to catch up to the newcomers.  And we trust that it will. Salesforce.com customers probably feel the same way.  And so will Flickr customers when they see zooomr.  It's not that zooomr isn't, as Michael Arrington says, "Flickr on steroids."  And it's not that Salesforce.com, Flickr, and other SaaS providers don't have APIs for programmatically getting at your data. They do.  It's just that as long as that magic button doesn't exist -- the one that auto-magically takes all the data from the old service and pours it into the new one without loss of fidelity, switching is too hard to consider doing it.

If you're the developer of the next big thing in some category and you're hoping to woo existing users away from the current crop of offerings (and you should),  make sure you think about having some magic buttons.  And if you're a customer of a SaaS provider -- whether it's photo sharing services, CRM, or whatever -- tell the new kids on the block that you'll be happy to try their services out just as soon as the magic button for whatever service or software you're currently using is in place and been proven to work.  Even if they have to build it just for you. Otherwise, stick with your existing provider.  They may get leap-frogged.  But it won't be for long.

Topic: Tech Industry

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9 comments
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  • reducing (some) switching costs...

    You make a great point about being "trapped" by a service provider. We are working on a solution at ElephantDrive (www.elephantdrive.com). We already have a great online backup and storage service, but we are designing a publishing tool that will "free" your data, by allowing you to programmatically publish photos, videos, documents, etc... to your social network or content sharing platform of choice. We want to remove the switching costs of pushing your content to flickr, or myspace, or ofoto -- or all of them. Keep you eyes on the site for more news...
    LargeMammal
  • Service Trappings

    David,

    A number of very good points - and a defense of the PC included (versus the dumb terminal, sorry; Network Computer). I'm sure that SaaS will replace PC software products - eventually - but there need to be some changes first.

    The lack of service assistance we so often see, unfortunately, demonstrates a lack of understanding about the differences between a product and a service. Net Developers need to think about their end result as a service - and ask the questions a service provider asks at the design stage:
    - How [i]might[/i] this service be used?
    - What might [i]prevent[/i] people from using my service (you have given one very good example but most new services will throw up several)?
    - What [i]support[/i] might users need (again, you have touched on this question but there is a wider set of questions that need to be considered)?

    Of course that still leaves the problem of proprietary technology. Many SaaS providers are beginning to understand the lock-in they can build (despite the negative marketing effects this creates).
    Stephen Wheeler
  • Great Article and Number 1 Problem with These Online Services

    Ive been waiting for SOMEONE to wake up and smell the coffee on this one. So, I agree with the premise of this article. These services, in the long run, do nothing but HURT the consumer, and fracture his/her data across hundreds of servers and domains. This business model is due for some loss, I predict, at some point as more and more people realize their personal data is captured and fractured due to these portals.

    Millions of families and businesses are using these so-called subscription services online now without really thinking about the downside to all these sites. They are really quite bad, and I'll tell you why...

    1. Your DATA is CAPTURED and held hostage on most of these services so that these portals can sell you to their advertisers. Im not 100% against that but its a dumb business model when it comes to data management and helping people actually manage and secure and organize the data that drives their lives. Google, Yahoo, MSN, Shutterfly, Ofoto....they are all the same. And all of them are trying to capture you and your data so they can sell you to advertisers or to more services. Google is the most guilty of all!
    2. You really DONT have access to your data...if you REALLy think about it. I mean, a family loves the fact they can open a browser and upload a photo....but like this article brilliantly describes...what happens when it comes time to reorganize all your megabytes of images onto YOUR server or web site???? How can one get to those photos, or the data that holds them in the web site?? You cant separate the two, so its a very disorganized data model. These guys havnt thought about that! The customer is screwed in the end, when it comes time to move those photos to another environment.
    3. How many PASSWORDS do we all have now to services and email and free storage space and photo and free web hosting accounts online? Its incredible how fractured your data now becomes because of the "Google Model" (as I call it) where you use someone else services and services for free in exchange for having that data frozen on their servers. Users are tired of managing passwords to 20 different protals and accounts!
    4. When your personal photos, business data, xml data, sql data, files and contacts are scattered across the internet, how valuable is that to ANYONE in terms of helping you organize your personal content??? Where is YOU data for your business now? Its across dozens of servers and you dont own it! Sorry to say!

    Im actually starting my own business that is proposing a NEW model for all this based on helping people migrate AWAY from portals and towards the older model of hosting some of this on your own web domain at a small fraction of the cost and using free GPL software that allows you to manage that data indefinately on a domain you control forever (if you like). Its based on the premise you DONT need to use these services, period! You need free tools that allow YOU to own your OWN PHOTOS and DATA on your OWN WEB SITE! Very simple concept. What if you stopped using Yahoo and Google to email, share photos, etc. and instead started putting all that stuff on your own web site? Sure, nothing new there, but the idea that every person should eventually have problems with having their data scattered across servers will eventaully force many people to investigate the idea of centralizing their personal data onto their own hosted environment, free from AdWord links, advertising, multiple logins, and fractured data models. I think this is where Salesforce and Goole may actually end up losing this game. I think the end-game of data exchange and storage online is centralizing ones data onto one web domain each of us owns.

    How you do that is not trivial, and thats where the future of online data management lies. Developers who can help people migrate all those photos and contacts and business data AWAY from the big portals and onto a single secure self-managed domain and web server will in the long run gain power over their data. That day is coming fast...problem is....for most of these web portals selling these services, there is no money in people moving away to their own servers. But I think that day is coming!
    wildranger
    • Really big rant

      all because of Google. I don't know 'bout everyone else, by data created/used for searching, free email, maps, and viewing the earth spin around is nothing like the data created/used for finances, inventory levels, contacts & addresses, etc. Google gets a free pass from me, but not SalesForce.com, QuickBooks online, NetSuite.com, etc. THAT data is worth protecting and keeping local, not Goggle data. Get your priorities straight and don't just bad mouth Google to toss up 'bad press'. Companies can compete on merits, not on loud, ill-informed rant parties that attempt to subvert the consumer?s decision making process.
      nomorems
      • You Google data not worth protecting?

        Thats funny stuff.....so, you dont care what happens to your thousands of emails or addresses you keep on Gmail servers, or family photo albums on Pikasa, or your product listings on Froogle? Tell that to your "subverted consumer" who is logging in and has a business and wants to centrally manage that data by exporting it off of Google servers. Tell that to the consumer who has to use 10 different sites to manage all this data or the people who try and figure out how to integrate Outlook with Google's systems. Its a mess!
        Im not against using Google or Yahoo or Salesforce as casual portal sites I use as a consumer....Im talking about data thats yours, but they own! And how do you get that data when you decide to migrate away from Google. That was the point of the article. And if you dont think Google holds YOUR data captive, think again. Ask them if you can have a copy of their Gmail system for your own server so you can manage your own email??? Good luck!

        Try and come up with some kind of original rebuttal rather than personal attacks. (BTW, I am the consumer....not the 'press'. Its the consumer that matters here!)
        wildranger
  • Why trust your data to someone else

    All of this web services stuff should be considered only as a way to share or possibly backup your data, and should absolutely NOT be your only copy of your data. If you are putting your only copy of precious family photos on some web site you are only asking for trouble. The site could be hacked, they could close down, they can simply loose your data.

    There is no way that I put original copies of my data out there for anyone. If I want to share photos with my family, I will use these services with a COPY of the photo while I maintain the original (and my backups) for my use. The only one I can trust for the safety and security of my data is me.

    Web backup sites can be handy for travel and access to data and can be a third layer of backup, but to trust them as your only backup is silly for the same reasons.

    In a few years, as these comanies shake out and start to close down or consolodate, I can see the uproar from folks who have lost a good portion of their data.
    brad.wiesley@...
    • Agreed.

      The ONLY way to use these services.
      nomorems
    • you just contradicted yourself

      You say at the end:

      "In a few years, as these comanies shake out and start to close down or consolodate, I can see the uproar from folks who have lost a good portion of their data."

      My point exactly!!!!

      You can say you dont care because its a "web service" and you have data elsewhere, then you say you see an uproar coming! My point exactly! ....with Google and Yahoo and Salesforce (and as this article describes) an uproar is coming when billions of emails, photos, and data is lost to millions of people, because the model was flawed from the beginning!

      People are ready for free software that allows them to centralize their data on their web servers and domains. No brainer!
      wildranger
  • Can online photo sharing be free?

    ?A former employee has accused Eastman Kodak Co. of illegally tampering with the quality of customers' digital photos and making false advertising claims, according to a statement issued Wednesday (29 March 2006) by the former employee's attorney? reports DylanMcGrath, Business Editor at AP. As a competing online photo printing service, FotoInsight of Cambridge, UK distances itself from unlimited, free online photo hosting. Providing quality prints for a few cents or pence does not combine with unlimited online storage of multi megabyte image files. FotoInsight only offers uncompressed, printing quality online archiving. We have always stated that this can only be maintained with an honest time limit.

    According to FotoInsight, providing unlimited online photo sharing at print quality is unsustainable with ever larger digital camera image files. http://fotoinsight.com provides an online archive option with print orders only, limited to one month, after which users may pay for an extension. As discussed in the article, there are plenty of sites specializing in online photo sharing, which is a feasible service as long as there is a tap on the size. Such online photo sharing sites follow a very different business model from photo printing services like FotoInsight (or Ofoto), which specialise in real photographic paper prints and photo gifts requiring print resolution jpegs. ?FotoInsight has never understood how Ofoto could accept unlimited storage and online access of multi megabyte jpegs for unlimited time. With Kodak acquiring Ofoto they will have to deal with the accusation by their former director of engineering Maya Raber, to have planned to [i]irreversibly damage photos[i].?
    kbrumann