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.

Coming in August: great IT advice for businesses

Regular readers (both of you) may recall that some time ago I hinted at a new project I’ve been working on. I’m pleased to report that the wraps are off: The IT Donut, a new website for small businesses, will be launching the week of 23 August.

The IT Donut will be the fourth in a family of websites. You might already have seen the Marketing, Law and Start-Up Donuts. Its aim will be to demystify every aspect of business technology.

Expect heaps of advice about choosing, using and generally not getting totally frustrated with IT in your business.

I’ve taken on the role of editor (the next few months are looking to be very busy), but thankfully there’s a whole team of great people from BHP Information Solutions working hard on the site too. And because you can’t substitute for first-hand knowledge and experience, we’re on the hunt for experts who know all about IT at the sharp end of business.

You see, when businesses use IT, there’s an ideal world, and there’s what actually happens. The two often differ quite considerably.

The IT Donut isn’t going to live in the plain sailing, smooth running and largely theoretical ideal world. It will acknowledge the situations and challenges businesses face every day with their IT.

Although the team behind the website is packed with experience (I’ve been writing about small businesses and IT for years now), we need people who’ve been there and done it to help us cover every area. These IT experts are the people who’ll really bring the site to life.

So if you know a bit about IT in business, I want to hear from you. You might be an expert in web hosting, networking or accounting software. Or you might be a business that’s experimented with cloud computing, open source software – or gained some other knowledge that you’d like to share.

Whatever your expertise, give me a shout. It’s your chance to be involved in one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on – and to get some great PR while you’re at it.

Apple’s iPad: the competition prize of the moment

Some years ago I worked as a web editor for an IT firm. We used to run occasional competitions. One of the best parts of that job was phoning people up to tell them they’d won a prize – a PC or games console, say.

We always used to put quite a lot of thought into what to give away. We wanted things that would be eyecatching and useful too. We didn’t really want our competition winners to go sticking what they’d won straight up on eBay.

That job would be much easier today. There’s only one prize that anyone who’s anyone is giving away at the moment: Apple’s iPad.

I’ve come to this conclusion after noticing a spate of tweets, adverts, emails and websites, all promoting competitions to win the giant iPhone. And it really is quite astounding how many websites are giving this gadget away.

Unbeatable, Bitter Wallet, Pocket Lint, UK2Review Centre, T3 and Travolution. All these are UK-based sites, giving away a gadget which isn’t even officially available in the UK yet. When you widen it to US sites, it just gets silly.

Try, Zagg, SEOMOZ, Mashable, Symantec, Digg, PCMag and authorStream for starters. So many companies are giving the things away that there must be a danger of a shortage for ordinary buyers.

This got me thinking. Could the number of competitions offering a given item as a prize be indicative of the appeal of that prize? And if so, could companies use this statistic as some form of market research?

(Image courtesy of Apple.)