Software As A Disservice

When it comes to my data, I tend to be a control freak. I run my own domain. All of the servers that run it were built by me, in my own house, and only I have administrator access on them. I run my own E-mail servers, my own Web servers, and even my own instant messenger service. If I cannot run a service on my own systems, I tend to prefer doing without it instead of using a hosted service; this is particularly a problem for me in the shared calendar space, where the options are either hosted, hideously expensive and heavy, or broken.

Why? It’s simple: self-preservation wins, every time. Who besides me has a stronger interest in my privacy? Who else feels more pain over lost or inaccessible data? No one does. So if I’m going to trust you with my data, there must be some very high benefit, or the data in question must be unimportant, or something else must be true that overcomes my suspicions.

The conventional wisdom has been that I’m behind the times. The current trend is “software as a service”, where sophisticated Web sites take the place of local apps. E-mail and map software are examples people are familiar with, but there are others: photo management, bookmark managers, even full office suites. I’ll go so far to admit that some online software is way better than the alternatives, such as online map sites, but I tend to be suspicious by default. This makes for some good-natured ribbing from my boss, when I bemoan the sad state of some immature technology I’m fighting with that’s available as an online service.

Lately, though, Ian has been hearing the siren call back towards paranoia:

A friend of mine managed to get himself locked out of his Yahoo account, and after hours on the phone with Yahoo support, he seems unable to convince the Yahoo bureaucracy he is who he says he is so they will let him back in. He even offered to fly to Sunnyvale to present his driver license. Apparently, the zip code Yahoo has on file is different than the zip code he’s had his entire life, and the support staff say they can’t unlock his account until he gives them the right answer, which he’s already doing. (Apparently, the best one particularly dim bulb in Yahoo customer service could come up with is that he call back each day with a different guess till he gets it right.)

The indirect response he got was, well, disappointing (censored for language):

How about getting a clue? All I can think is “what kind of %@#$% doesn’t backup his CRUCIAL data?!” Seriously. Gmail is a free beta service.

(Jeremy Zawodny is a Yahoo guy, and he was responding to a similar incident posted elsewhere, not to Ian’s friend.)

To which Ian responds (again, edited for language):

Isn’t the whole point of software-of-a-service that you can just put your stuff “in the cloud” and let someone else (you know, someone with hundreds of millions of dollars of computing infrastructure and thousands of employees and—presumably anyway—some sort of backup policy) take care of it for you so it “just works”? Isn’t that what Google, Yahoo, etc. have been trying to sell us? It’s certainly compelling to me, which is why I’ve been moving in that direction myself. Interesting, though, that when they screw up, they call us %@#$% for following them. I guess that’s what the cop-out “beta” moniker is designed to do—put all your stuff here, but if we screw up, don’t blame us, you %@#$%, it’s a free beta service!

It’s not often that such an opportunity arises to call your boss something unprintable in public and get away with it… but my impeccable sense of decorum forbids me. Alas!

Seriously, I was as surprised as Ian to see Jeremy’s response. Why do I not have a Yahoo account? Because I don’t trust Yahoo to be as careful with my data as I am. You’d think Yahoo would want to convince me otherwise; after all, I frequently dole out advice on things like this to hundreds of potential Yahoo customers. Apparently, there’s some advantage to confirming my paranoia, however many people I scare off software-as-a-service using that confirmation as ammunition.

Such as my wife, who just discovered the wonder that is Yahoo Calendar. Her enthusiasm was easily curable, however. I doubt she’ll be the last to take the cure.

UPDATE (2006-03-17): Yahoo isn’t the only one having problems with reliability and customer service.

4 thoughts on “Software As A Disservice

  1. I agree completely, and have noticed the same shortcoming: calendar servers,
    “…shared calendar space, where the options are either hosted, hideously expensive and heavy, or broken.”

    If you have tried Hula and/or Cosmo, any comments/opinions would be very much appreciated — there seem to be very few reviews about them…

  2. I haven’t yet, though Cosmo is on my list to try really soon.

    Open source efforts in the calendar space seem to be in one of two camps: broken because they’re still new and immature, or broken because they’re just poorly done. No one has hit that “mature AND usable” sweet spot yet.

    But I don’t see Yahoo Calendar as a solution, for reasons exhausively explained above.

  3. i am trying zimbra at the moment. it’s hard to only use the calendar atm, but otherwise it’s great

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