The tricky problem of free apps: what happens when they close?

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Writing about the closure of Editorially got me thinking about how many free online apps I use.

And it got me wondering: what would happen if one of them closed tomorrow?

Is your information safe?

So, let’s take Editorially. The short blog post explaining its closure is accompanied by an FAQ, which contains this useful snippet of information:

“Will everything continue to work until the shutdown? Hopefully, but we can’t guarantee that. The founders will stay on to help with any issues that arise with the export tool, but we may not be able to fix unrelated bugs.”

In other words: you might rely on Editorially to run your business, but there are no guarantees it’s going to keep on working properly.

(If you do use Editorially, this is why you should export your data from the service as soon as you can.)

A word of warning about ‘free’

This post isn’t intended to direct criticism at Editorially. The service never made any promises about long-term availability and I think it’s admirable the founders have been so open about what happens next.

But what’s happened to Editorially is a timely warning. It’s easy to start using a free online app. If it’s good, you can soon come to depend on it.

For instance, I use Red Pen and Bounce to make notes on client mockups and wireframes. They’re brilliant ways to share ideas and feedback.

Because I don’t pay for these services, they don’t make any promises. They could close my account tomorrow, deleting all the screenshots I’ve uploaded and erasing all the comments I’ve made.

Think about the apps you use

The lesson here isn’t to avoid free apps that can make your life easier. They’re too useful for that. But do think about which ones you use and what you use them for.

If you’re starting to become reliant on a particular app, or find you’re using it to store lots of important information, check out the company behind the app and how their business works.

Are they well established? Do they have a paid-for product with a strong customer base? Is the app part of their core business, or does it feel like an extra project they might kill off? (Just look at what happened to Google Reader.)

It’s good to try new apps and there are lots of businesses creating interesting tools that deserve support.

But if there’s one you depend on day in, day out, do some homework so you can be confident it isn’t going to disappear when you need it most.

(Incidentally, both Red Pen and Bounce are run by established companies offering other products that are paid-for.)

Image from Flickr user Charles Dyer under Creative Commons.

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