This has been a disruptive month for me in terms of technology I rely on every day: two of my favorite and most frequently used software applications have been or are being discontinued. Sigh.
The first application, Zite, was officially shutdown on December 7, 2015. This had been a long-time-coming, as Zite (previously owned by CNN) was purchased by Flipboard back in March 2014. The deal gave CNN an advertising partnership with Flipboard, and the companies agreed to phase out Zite as a standalone application. While Flipboard looks like it has some potential, it lacks the simple user interface and familiar feel that I had grown accustomed to with Zite. This isn’t necessarily a huge hit for me in terms of my business, but Zite was my primary means of digesting daily news. And despite having ample notice that Zite was being discontinued, my search of a suitable replacement was unsuccessful. While I downloaded countless apps over the course of the year to replace Zite, there really isn’t a good replacement. I will miss you old friend.
The second application, Mailbox app, is being shutdown early 2016. The death of this app required more immediate attention as I, like many other professionals, rely on email in my daily life and need a good email client on my mobile devices. I had used Mailbox since it came out; securing one of the coveted early adopter spots (I recall being in the fist 10s of thousands — the list had quickly grown to hundreds of thousands with new users being allowed to download the app on a rolling basis as the company scaled up). Mailbox revolutionized what is now a more common email application feature: the ability to “swipe” messages to different folders and to “snooze” emails to disappear from your inbox and resurface at a predetermined date. I tend to use my inbox as a sort of to-do list, and being able to control when emails would come back to my attention was a big help for me. Also, the ability to quickly and easily organize messages into folders was great for staying organized. Mailbox app had a clean interface, was pretty rock solid stable in my experience, and I was comfortable with it. Unfortunately, the success of Mailbox was also its demise. Back in 2013, after only having been live for about a month, Dropbox purchased Mailbox for $100 million dollars. That’s a lot of dinero! Since then, Dropbox has struggled to justify its own valuation, and has decided to discontinue Mailbox and another app it had acquired, Carousel, to focus on its core business. What would you do without Dropbox?
Fortunately, there seem to be a number of suitable replacements for Mailbox. In the couple days I’ve used it, I actually found Outlook for iOS to be quite good. It does not have all the “swipe” features that Mailbox did, but seems good enough. It has even prompted me to start trying out Outlook for Mac as my primary email client on the desktop (before I had found that the web interface of Google Apps for business was just fine). Time will tell if Outlook is really right for me, but so far, so good.
So what is the point of all of this? Back in law school, I became familiar with the concept of “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” That phrase has stuck with me and really rings true. If you’re not paying for your software or service, then the company has to be making money from you some other way (Facebook). More to the point is the uncertainty of whether a particular software suite will survive the test of time. With more and more software apps heading to the cloud (if they aren’t there already), individuals and businesses can be left in an awkward position if the company closes its doors.
What if Dropbox announced it was no longer in business? Millions of people and businesses would be faced with the pressing task of finding a replacement cloud storage solution. The same goes for Box App and any number of other cloud-based storage/sync apps that we have come to rely on. While the cloud has mitigated some risk for us, and cut down on IT costs that businesses previously faced by having to do everything in-house, these other risks have emerged. This isn’t to say the same risks aren’t applicable to in-house solutions. If your severs fail, it would have the same effect of your SAAS provider going out of business without warning. I’ve heard many stories from other attorneys about fatal server crashes — countless years of billing data wiped out, client files lost, etc… Similarly, while I’m a big fan of the paperless movement, it is not without risk. If you are without internet or your servers are unavailable, you may find yourself stranded somewhere without access to any of your files. I’ve seen this first hand with opposing counsel unable to access their servers at a deposition.
I guess the solution to all of this is risk management, and I’ve provided a couple tips that may help. First, make sure all your data is backed up. The consensus is to have three copies of your data, stored in different locations and on different mediums. You should not only backup your data, but at least one of your backups should also be redundant, e.g., RAID configured hard drives. If you’re running a busy business, consider how much data you could go with out. For some businesses, even losing one day worth of data could be crippling. Set your backup schedule accordingly. Second, do your homework and make an assessment of whether you think your chosen software provider will be around for the long haul. If you’re considering a critical software application, don’t be afraid to call the company and ask them about their prospects for the future. Third, because we aren’t clairvoyant, you should chose a software provider that allows you easy access to all your raw data in the event the company goes belly-up. Or, you may just want access to you data if you find a better provider. In either scenario, cross-compatibility is key. Whatever the reason, you should be able to take your data with you (most database driven applications should allow you to export your data in XLS or CSV formats). On the other hand, if your data is stored in some proprietary format, then you’ll be tasked with having to manually migrate all your data. Can we say “expensive” and “inconvenient”? Fourth, there are some things you can’t really protect against, e.g., hackers. Don’t let your data be the low-hanging fruit; have strong security features in place, and come up with a contingency/mitigation plan in the event of a breach.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and fortunately, neither of the apps I recently lost are mission critical to my practice. These changes, however, have been a wake-up call for me to re-think my data management practices and consider how protected (adaptable) my technological life is if it were confronted with a bigger change.