Web Apps: A Study in Disillusionment

Dot Com and the New Bubble

I may finally have the necessary temperament for learning how to love (and let go) of the Web Apps.

A Soon as you Love an App, They Leave You.

Thus, to survive unscathed, lowered expectations are in order.

Mobile apps, web apps, little utilities of all stripes, have the lifespans of a mayfly. They come, they impress you with their utility and slick UI, and then in an instant, they are gone.

I have seen it too many times, yet I’m always surprised.

First it was Google Reader, the late-lamented RSS tool. Reader was useful, it was (mostly) reliable, and then, it was gone. Shut down, Reader was rolled into products like Feedly or Flipboard.

Next for me, it was Evernote, the ubiquitous utility and all its variations like Clearly, Skitch and those tools for studying and recipes. Learning how to love Clearly only to be a bit let down as that was shuttered (basically built into Edge, Firefox or Safari). At least the void left by Clearly was filled by another competitor; one should always be so lucky.

I had an unfortunate experience with payment device Coin (recently acquired by Fitbit). When their product simply did not work I was able to get a refund (after waiting for over year to take delivery on the startup’s credit-card sized Coin appliance).

This week, still reeling from the Dropbox hack, and adjusting to the revelation of the 2012 LinkedIn hack weeks earlier, I learned of the soon demise of Readability, a unique bookmarking service with another reader-friendly site rendering tool. Readability as I was disappointed to read will be sun-setting on September 30th.

Obviously Readability’s competition will fill any gaps left by their hasty curtain call. I have continued to work with Instapaper and Pocket (cleverly integrated into Firefox). Instapaper in its current form may bear only a passing resemblance to the app first envisioned by Marco Arment, but at least it works. Pocket has enjoyed more adoption (and frankly more revenue), and has a decent integration within Firefox. I continue to like the product well enough to keep saving articles into it.

My email is frequently filled with news about major changes to such apps. It may be an acquisition (like Instapaper’s sale in 2013), or it may be a new bold update. Still more likely, it will be news that a product or service will have an unfortunate end, leaving its developers scrambling to find new jobs and their customers to figure out how to get their data out of proprietary systems they accumulated over time.

The Village Amateur

Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur” decried the closed systems of Web 2.0, particularly Facebook’s gated community of over-sharing netizens.

Keen’s argument has merit. Facebook, as well as other such products and services, gives me the feeling of being inside “The Village”, the setting of the 1960’s classic “The Prisoner”.

I must confess to finding Facebook news feeds slightly cumbersome. Trying to save articles using their service requires using their API (and remaining in their restrictive environs). The same system found in the Windows 10 Facebook App is even more restrictive. Getting outside the Facebook walls requires more effort than seems worthwhile.

In some ways, my mobile app experience reminds me of the provincial feeling which Facebook often leaves me.

Readability delivered the news by email of their impending demise. To salvage the bookmarks saved by their customers, they direct you to go to the “Tools” section of their web app. From there, a link is available to export the data collected by your research.

Within 48 hours (or less if you don’t have so many bookmarks) another email with a hyperlink arrives from Readability. The link takes you to a JSON file with an obfuscated file name. Opening this link allows you to save the file (though if you were to open this with MS Edge, you would actually open the JSON file and there is not a way to save that file. Opening in Firefox prompts the user to save it to the downloads folder).

The Readability link is temporary, left up for only one week (after which time users need to generate another).

For those customers who are not web developers, this option is likely to be frustrating, but it is par for the course. The data formatting was obviously proprietary and so for better or worse, getting that data will be a labyrinthine task indeed.

I consider myself lucky not have so much data in Readability. The reading list was one thing, the archives (older articles filed away) was another. Still, I was a Readability lightweight and my data usage in this product was blessedly small. For those Readability users who have more reliance, I feel your pain!

I had an eerily similar experience this week. Upon news of the Dropbox hack (the one that took place in 2012, and Dropbox is just getting around to telling us now) I started the massive undertaking of purging my account to proceed with ending my subscription. I started this only to discover that this will not be as easy as downloading my data. When folders and their subfolders reach certain sizes, Dropbox cannot simply archive those directories into a zip file. The strategy for me will have to involve a great deal of manual reshuffling as more directories are created in smaller bite-sized chunks or perhaps some individual files must be downloaded. In any case, ending my service with Dropbox will take some doing.

To be fair, at least Dropbox has enabled two-factor authentication. Sadly, it is by way of text to a mobile phone, a practice which NIST has now recommended against. Before long, this “Best Practice” will be a thing of the past. It seems Dropbox’s response is another fine example of that hackneyed phrase “Too Little, Too Late”.

I now chide myself for not heeding the ominous warnings of the likes of Edward Snowden. I recommended Dropbox to many friends and relatives. In light of their lack of security standards, I regret this referral and look forward to breaking ties with the cloud storage company.

Closed systems have their disadvantages. Salvaging all the data you accumulated into a web or mobile app can be a difficult task. Judging from my experience with the likes of Readability and Dropbox, what might the experience of an enterprise cloud provider of Software-as-a-Service be for their customers if in this ephemeral nature of today’s software entrepreneurs, they lose the app they have come to rely on?

The New Normal

With notices about another product, service or mobile app biting the dust coming with alarming frequency, I should learn to steel myself and not become so attached.

Even products and services offered by reasonably well-moated veterans get axed. The nature of the beast.

Companies like Evernote have terrific products, but can find themselves beleaguered by unexpected setbacks like hemorrhaging cash, reduced subscriptions or other vicissitudes.

Evernote may have helped themselves by simplifying their product lines, and updating their subscription service. I hope so. In spite of being reasonably impressed by Microsoft of late, I’m not a fan of OneNote, and would not like to face a future where I have to export Evernote into that lesser product. 
But such is the way of the web. Easy come, easy go.

Still I am beginning to wonder how to simplify even more and how to be less reliant on such utilities. Who knows how long I have before that thing doesn’t work anymore and I’m left holding a bag full of useless data.

Caveat emptor my friends.

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