A collective moan arose from users following Google's inexplicable announcement that it plansto shutter its popular and widely used Google Reader service in July. No suprise that when Google launched another service, a note-taking add-on to Google Drive called Keep, many were skeptical about using it. As Om Malik said, "What if I spend months using the app, and then Google decides it doesn't meet some arbitrary objective?"
This is a specific example of the general problem of service providers deciding to change direction and leaving customers high and dry. It's a problem open source and open standards address well, and while we're watching Google's internal politics mess with the online happiness of millions, it's good to be reminded we have alternatives.
When it comes to complex business systems, open source offers us "community escrow" -- the ability to pick a different service provider to maintain the source code abandoned by your previous supplier. This was what the OpenSolaris community did when Oracle pulled out, and the resulting collaboratively maintained code continues to deliver differentiating value at the core of companies like Joyent and Nexenta under the name Illumos.
The Google Reader case is different. Reader is an endpoint for the stable, open standards RSS and ATOM; as such, there are many alternative systems that are standards-compatible and can be dropped into place. Indeed, Web-based alternatives like Feedly and NewsBlur have been overwhelmed with new subscribers switching to their service, and desktop clients are once again popular. One of the earliest on the Mac, NetNewsWire, came out of retirement in response to the news of Google Reader's demise.
While Google looked like a safe choice, the demise of Reader shows they can choose to deprecate just about anything in the secret halls of the Mountain View kings. What can we do to insulate businesses from the turbulence of Web-based solutions? There are two important principles that should be found at the heart of any strategy for online tools.
First, use open standards that have multiple implementations, of which at least one is open source. If your supplier uses file formats and data protocols under their sole, arbitrary control (even if they claim they're a "standard" or "standards-based"), chances are a change of strategy on their part would leave you hostage to their monetization strategy. Even if they claim their format is "open," check for the existence of a strong, maintained open source implementation. You don't have to use it; its existence is proof enough that the standard is open. Go with standards: ODF for documents, IMAP for email, XMPP for messaging, SIP for voice and video communications, and so on. Next Wednesday is Document Freedom Day, when we're reminded of the importance of open formats. Use it as an opportunity to put the topic of migrating to open standards back on the priority list.
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