Facebook’s Parse shutdown has a lesson to all tech customers

On January 28, Facebook announced that they’re shutting down Parse, a service used by software developers to store and manage data in their apps.

Considered against the dismal standard of customer care in case of cloud service shutdowns, Facebook is handling the process very graciously. The company is keeping Parse up for a full year and has also released the source code for the Parse server as open source. This allows software developers to set up their own Parse-like services and transfer over the data they have on Facebook’s servers.

It’s an open question how many Parse users will do that, however. There are hundreds of thousands of apps using Parse. Most of these are mobile apps for iOS and Android, and a lot of them are not actively maintained.

The “shelf life” of a mobile app is fairly short. Teams move on quickly to new projects. Revamping a three-year-old app for a new back-end is not high on any developer’s task list unless the app is producing meaningful revenue.

What happens to non-updated apps when the Parse back-end vanishes from the Internet? For some apps that were relying on Parse only for simple data or cloud backups, the effect may be minimal — for example, a game might lose its high score list but still keep working. Most apps are probably not that resilient to server loss. In the worst case, apps will stop working completely as they can’t validate logins. In the intermediate case, local data will still be accessible but any online features will be missing… And that is not much of a relief, as few users will stick around with obviously broken apps like that.

Many developers are upset because they expected Facebook to provide more stability. In the consumer world, there is an implicit assumption that Facebook will keep your data forever and make it accessible anywhere. (Facebook has famously been in hot water with European privacy laws because they don’t delete data even if you’d like them to.)

Developers are now discovering that Facebook-the-B2B-company is very different from the Facebook they thought they knew. Keeping Parse up is a major cost center for Facebook. The free plans are good enough for a lot of apps, so many customers were not paying anything; meanwhile bandwidth and storage cost real money. Facebook-the-public-company just reported nice quarterly earnings two days ago. Shutting down Parse now is one way of ensuring that they’re making even more money next year, and that stuff always matters when you’re constantly scrutinized by Wall Street.

In a way, Facebook’s acquisition of Parse in 2013 seems to have postponed the inevitable. As a startup, Parse was always vulnerable to running out of money. As a division inside Facebook, Parse was always vulnerable to running out of strategic support. Either way the result has been the same for users and customers of the platform.

Herein lies a big lesson for anyone who buys tech products. There’s no inherent safety in buying from a big vendor. A growth-chasing startup and an Internet giant can both turn out to be too unstable to bet your technology choices on.

Instead, you should look for a company that actually wants to be in the business of selling to you. The keyword here is “selling”. Growth-oriented startups like Parse tend to give away extravagantly in order to attract users. Such a company hopes to offset the mounting losses with investor money, with the goal of either being acquired by someone with deep pockets (as happened to Parse) or becoming big enough to be a monopoly in a market, at which point they can eventually turn on the money spigot as users have become “sticky”.

Silicon Valley’s capital-fuelled gift horse rodeo cannot be a foundation for any long-term plans. If you need stability and consistency, look for a small business that cares about customers and charges a fair price. (A fair price is one where you don’t need to wonder if the seller is going out of business by selling to you.)

Small companies are often great because they can be like a partner that grows together with you. Silicon Valley startups are, more often than not, essentially looking to exploit you in order to maintain a hypergrowth graph that ends up in a place where you don’t matter by definition.

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