It's been a rough couple of weeks for the cloud. Google abruptly announced users had a month to download content from Google Video before it would be nuked from orbit, enabling the service to transition to search alone; a subsequent about-face with a YouTube-migration option did little to calm people's nerves about the long-term reliability of content hosted on popular third-party services. And now Friendster is completing its transition to a streamlined gaming network by dumping users' profiles, photos, messages, blogs and shoutouts. But at least Friendster is providing export from the start, courtesy of an app; users have until May 31 to grab their content.
With people increasingly using the likes of Facebook and Flickr as a kind of online storage for their lives, there are concerns similar content-loss scenarios will play out with increasing frequency and severity over the coming years, unless web users become more savvy and services become more open. "The problem is that companies offer these services free of charge and have no obligation to you, the user, and are perfectly within their rights to scrap a service," says Jocelyn Kirby, head of marketing at Metakinetic Ltd. "Companies must ensure users understand services should not be used as the storage location for the sole version of a document, image or video. If this is clearly communicated at the outset, at least users understand what it is they're using and to what extent their precious items are 'safe'."
Over-reliance can be catastrophic from a personal or company-wide standpoint. "I'm reminded of a story from February this year where a Flickr user lost 4000 photos after an admin error resulted in his account being deleted," says designer Ben Marsh. "Sensibly, he had the files backed-up elsewhere, but all the links to those photos from across the web were broken." Flickr eventually reinstated the photos, albeit imperfectly; but Marsh argues you "shouldn't rely on or trust third parties, no matter how well known, to keep your data 100 per cent secure," also citing the recent PlayStation Network hack (which may have compromised personal details and credit-card information for millions of users) as a perfect demonstration. And from a business standpoint, Kirby is concerned that "many companies rely on the power of cloud services in the day-to-day running of their business," adding that the free version of Google Apps is hugely popular and there's nothing to stop Google 'forcing' a transition to a paid version if the desire so took it.
Giles Colborne, managing director, cxpartners, hopes more companies will at least follow Friendster's lead (and Google's eventual reaction with Google Video) in providing users with a means to easily access their content: "You should always be able to download your data at the click of a button. Plenty of online services rifle through your PC's address book for email addresses so you can 'find your friends', but I can't think of one that goes the other way and lets you download your social network to your PC's address book by way of a back-up. Well-designed sites should recognise that the users have rights to their data." Colborne adds that when choosing SaaS solutions for his business, the ability to export data to his PC any time is important: "It reassures me that I'm not going to be held to ransom by my service provider—it helps win my trust. Perhaps we'll see the same thing with consumer cloud services in the future: the responsible ones will have a 'download' button—but that will only happen if people create enough of a fuss."