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

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.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

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.

Editorial standards