By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 24, 2009
By the standards of most power outages, Google's little hiccup last Thursday was nothing special. Most users of Google's sites and services didn't even notice, and those who did regained access in a couple of hours.
But to people who rely on Google for their e-mail, their calendars and their documents, seeing them suddenly drop offline must have felt as if somebody had carved a chunk out of the Internet.
An outage with a Web-based service can be the most maddening kind of computer malfunction. You can't walk over to the responsible computer, swear at it, and then reboot it. You can't even tell where the offending machine exists. All you can do is take the site owners at their word when they say "we're working to address these issues" -- if they acknowledge the problem at all.
Most people who partake in what the digerati call "cloud computing" will experience that kind of helplessness at some point, even if it's only for an hour or so. Microsoft's Windows Live Hotmail went down in March. Apple's MobileMe calendar and contacts applications cratered on their public debut last summer. And Amazon's S3 storage service, which numerous other Web applications rely on to hold their data, had a prolonged outage last February.
It's enough to make you want to retreat to the safety of a traditional, desktop-based program. Why put up with the odds of Gmail or Google Calendar flaking out when you can install a dependable application like Microsoft's Outlook? Why use a Web service like Mint.com or Quicken Online to track your finances when you can keep that information on your own machine in a trusted program like Intuit's Quicken?
Indeed, desktop programs like those can work quite well to keep your data under your control . . . especially if you don't try to take your data out of those applications.
That's a too-often-overlooked downside of what you could call "ground computing": closed, proprietary files.
Using a format that one company keeps to itself, at worst, can prevent you from ever taking your business elsewhere. More often, you'll have to sit through prolonged and complicated file-export procedures to get your data into another program.
Microsoft's Outlook is the best-known offender in this category. While the company has documented and opened the other major file types in its Office suite -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- Outlook's PST files remain largely closed to outsiders. Although Microsoft has provided some tools that allow other programs to access data stored in Outlook, getting all of your e-mail, contacts list, calendars, to-do list and memos from Outlook to another program (even if it's just Microsoft's Mac-only Entourage) can be an ordeal.
Intuit's Quicken QFX format can be just as opaque as Outlook's PST -- even if you need only to move a Quicken file from its Windows version to its Mac version.
A co-worker suffered the worst possible variation of this issue when his old Palm smartphone died, leaving his calendar stranded inside Palm Desktop -- which, unforgivably, doesn't provide any data-export option that another program can read.
Audio and video files locked with "digital rights management" usage controls combine the worst aspects of both ground- and cloud-based software: If the servers that control the DRM system go offline, you can lose access to those files through no fault of your own, while the proprietary nature of the DRM file format stops you from playing these songs and videos in competing applications.
(Conversely, some Web services, such as Yahoo Mail, offer only limited or extra-cost options to download your data. But many others -- for instance, Google's Gmail and Microsoft's Hotmail-- don't impose any major roadblocks to recovering your information.)
And yet people can obsess about the chances of an online outage of a few hours while not even thinking about the possibility of their data being locked up for the indefinite future.
There's no all-purpose answer as to which risk is worse. People with flaky connections won't like Web-based applications, but people who use multiple computers may not appreciate desktop programs.
But an outage of a Web service -- a prominent, public failing -- represents a harder-to-deny problem than a file that remains quietly but stubbornly unreadable in competing programs. The first problem should get better over time; the latter may never.
What that means is that we should pay more attention upfront to how a program, wherever it may reside, stores our data: As you're walking in the front door, you'd better know how to reach the exit.