The Problem With Google -- and The Cloud

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Those of us who love Google Reader are, naturally, upset by Google's decision to kill it. But it's not a hard decision to understand. Google gave away Reader for free and doesn't make any money from it. Anytime you use a product like that, there's a risk it will go away. But what about more important products? Those are safe, aren't they? Ezra Klein isn't so sure:

In fact, I'm starting to worry a bit about Gmail, which is at the core of pretty much my entire life. I know, I know — Gmail is safe. The data it feeds into the Google mainframe is extremely valuable to the search giant. They won't let anything happen to it.

But I'm a heavy user of Gmail. And so I've been buying more space on Google's servers. Recently, I hit 30 gigs — and learned Google won't let me purchase any more room. The service which once swore I'd never have to delete a message now tells me my only option is to delete gigabyte after gigabyte of past e-mails.

Actually, I think the problem lies elsewhere. Ever since the birth of the PC, you've taken a risk when you buy a new product. If it succeeds, it'll be around for a long time. If it doesn't, it will die. Google isn't breaking any new ground here.

What's different is that Google's products are all cloud-based. When Google Reader goes away on July 1, that's it. It's gone. If it were an ordinary bit of software that I'd installed on my PC, this wouldn't be a problem. It would keep on working for years even if it never got another update. I'd need to replace it eventually—because of an OS upgrade or a desire for new features that finally got too strong—but I'd probably have years to work that out.

Ditto for my email program, which is client-based. It will never run out of space, because I can always buy a bigger hard drive if I want to. If it goes away, I'll need to find a new email program, but I'll have plenty of time to do it.

Of course, there's a price to be paid for this: I don't have access to my email archive everywhere I go. If I traveled a lot, that would be a huge drawback.

My preferred solution is to use old-school client-based software, but to store all data (or perhaps mirror all data) in the cloud. Sure, my storage provider might go out of business, but that's an annoyance, not a crisis. I just have to find a new cloud storage provider and move my data.

This problem is that this still isn't as easy as it should be, and anyway, for lots of applications the cloud application model provides some compelling advantages. But I'm leery of it. I don't like being forced to upgrade whenever Google decides I should. (When they release a new version, that's what you get the next time you start up your browser. If you don't like it, tough.) I don't like having my software go away completely if Google tires of it. I don't like wondering if Google will put limits on how much data I'm allowed to keep. I don't really even like Google having access to all my data in the first place. One way or another, I figure they're going to use it for marketing purposes, no matter how loudly they swear they never will.

The cloud is not your friend. Or maybe it is, but at best it's a fair-weather friend. We've been seduced by free, and seduced by the cloud. We should probably all step back from the brink.

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