To shift or not to shift?

It seems to me that there is a growing trend of shifting everything online. By “everything” here I mean our personal computing. Why would you spend scarce gigabytes on your hard drive if you can keep all your email on gmail, all your documents in google docs, all your pictures in picasa, etc.? Having stuff online is not just practical in terms of saving space, but also in terms of access – your online storage can be accessed from anywhere, which is particularly convenient if you happen to use different computers at work, home, school, etc. At the same time, how much trust should we put in the third party company/s in order to keep all our information there (and i am not talking about privacy this time).

As Tarleton mentioned in his last lecture, we tend to pick on the big ones. So, it would not be surprising that I will refer here to Google, which I tend to both appreciate and examine with a critical eye. Usually, my concern with Google is about privacy and about the concentration of search services, however this time it is actually about reliability (and a little bit on consumer service :). Criticizing my skepticism, Leonichka once mentioned that he trusts Google until it does something to prove this wrong. Frankly, it was an important comment in my critical appreciation my thinking about Google. The only remaining question is what happens when this proving-wrong event actually takes place?

Last year I blogged about my not-so-pleasant encounter with gmail, when i was locked out of the email for about a week. Today I read a post by Danah Boyd about her friend’s encounter with Google. If you don’t have time/patience to read the original post, the story is simple. The guy has practically his entire life on Google (gmail, orkut, etc. – they do make great products!), but unfortunately, his account got hijacked (fishing) and soon deleted for spam abuse… (dramatic pause)… oops… (another dramatic pause)… Your work, your hobbies, your contacts, your communication – all is gone…

You do need to read more into Danah’s post to understand that it is not simple talking to Google and getting not-so-standard services from them. Eventually her friend got his data back, which raised another set of questions about “deleting” stuff from Google, but that is for another post.

I am left disturbed and puzzled after reading about this incident. On the one hand, here is a real scenario of potential lost or theft of your information stored online. That does not mean that the same thing cannot happen with the locally stored data. Maybe that is even more common. I, for example, lost some data recently while reinstalling my laptop, but it does not change the fact that the third party online solutions are not immune. On the other hand, it is important to mention the backup services that the online repositories and services provide. I think it is safe to assume that industrial backup processes are more professional compared to a self-performed backup at home. In turn, this aspect raises again questions of privacy and of what happens when you actually want to delete the data. Not to mention of course the horrible costumer service you have to face in order to get your data back (I hope one day they will understand that opening a new account is not always the ultimate solution).

So, here is a question – to shift or not to shift? Or to maintain both environments? And when it is enough evidence to start questioning company’s integrity? When it happens to 1000 random people, 10 people you know, or when it happens to you?

7 Responses to “To shift or not to shift?”

  1. Leonid Says:

    About shifting or not shifting:
    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2236628,00.asp

    About “a growing trend of shifting everything online” part or why I hate web-interfaces:
    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2193063,00.asp

  2. Dima Says:

    Thanks!

  3. Mimi Says:

    For all online backup and storage related info, I recommend this website:

    http://www.BackupReview.info

  4. lisa Says:

    Also known as the move to SaaS software as a service (and of course delivered via Internet)

    In defence of Google, it’s easy to target them because they ARE the big fish, but Gmail offers both POP and IMAP access so you can be downloading all your emails to a local machine for backup (which I do and recommend) whereas other free email typically doesn’t offer anything apart from the web interface (thinking Hotmail here, which had dodgy IMAP access for a while back in the day but then it stopped working)

    In the end though it’s not a question… the shift to software as a service and the changes that come with it — data/software/processing being independent of any particular kind of device or individual machine is accelerating.

  5. Josh Braun Says:

    (a) IMHO, Google’s IMAP currently does too much backing up to your local drive. It downloads an individual copy of every email for each tag that message has attached to it. I stopped using Google IMAP for that reason.

    (b) As for the online shift, I think it’s the logical way to go. Increasingly, computers are becoming mere terminals for accessing the Internet. People are spending more time personalizing their facebook and LinkedIn accounts than their desktops. My big prediction is that online storage will eventually be media companies’ solution to the copyright wars. Imagine a world where you buy cheap streaming subscriptions to movies and music, rather than physical or even digital copies.

    …I started to write out this response and it became a full-length post. If you’re interested, click through.

  6. Dima Says:

    Thank you guys for responding… it seems like at least here it is a growing consensus that everything is moving online. It seems to me though, that this shift is primarily an issue of trust more than anything else.

    Josh, i will reply to your post because i think there is an important difference between having reproducible and/or purchased from a third party content on a third party server and having your own, self produced and/or personal and not necessarily reproducible content in the same place. The more i think about it, the more it seems to me as an issue of your trust of the third party company.

    Lisa, as Josh, i heard some not very good things about IMAP and actually just yesterday i read this blog post on IMAP issue. I am following the same practice as you do, but that is not exactly the vision of desktop/laptop being a mere terminal for accessing the internet. Also, i am pretty sure that Hotmail has a POP option, no?

  7. Josh Braun Says:

    The trust/privacy questions are dead on. If they haven’t before, a lot of people will soon be asking themselves how much they really trust Google:

    Google to store records of health clinic’s patients

    San Jose Mercury News—Google will begin storing the medical records of a few thousand people as it tests a long-awaited health service that’s likely to raise more concerns about the volume of sensitive information entrusted to the Internet search leader.

    The pilot project announced Thursday will involve 1,500 to 10,000 patients at the Cleveland Clinic who volunteered to an electronic transfer of their personal health records so they can be retrieved through Google’s new service, which won’t be open to the general public.

    Each health profile, including information about prescriptions, allergies and medical histories, will be protected by a password that’s also required to use other Google services such as e-mail and personalized search tools.

    Google views its expansion into health records management as a logical extension because its search engine already processes millions of requests from people trying to find about more information about an injury, illness or recommended treatment.
    But the health venture also will provide more fodder for privacy watchdogs who believe Google already knows too much about the interests and habits of its users as its computers log their search requests and store their e-mail discussions.

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