There is a whole world of services out there that one can take advantage of, from online office suite (Google Docs are surprisingly functional) to email, from financial services to hosting your own data center in the cloud. Some of them are free, and some are commercial.
I am taking advantage of many of them. Mostly because I am one of those people who keep moving around between machines, and anything that isn't web based isn't practical to me.
Whenever the option of using someone else's services come up, there are a few question that we need to deal with:
- Security - Do I trust these guys to handle my data?
- Longevity - Are they going to be around for a long time?
- How do I get out - Are they locking all my data inside? Can I get it out in a reasonable way?
- Reliability - Can I rely on them to be up? How often do they have issues?
- Support - If I have an issue, who deals with it? How do I contact them? How responsive they are? What kind of treatment do they have?
- Transparency - If there is an issue, do I get to know what happened? How we can ensure that it will not happen again?
None of these are idle questions.
Right now, I cannot work on NH Prof because of an issue with assembla's Subversion. And Ken, yes, I know this wouldn't have happened if I used Git. When I used Google Docs to manage my finances, there were several incidents of me logging into the system and not seeing any of my spreadsheets. They always came back several hours later, but that was a very unwelcome feeling.
I have run into issues with non responsive (or even hostile) support before, and this is one of the reasons that I would immediately terminate all association with a particular provider.
I also prefer services that have a commercial option to the completely free one. With the completely free ones, unless they are backed by someone like Google or Microsoft, there is a strong likelihood that some day it will all just be gone.
Now, for many of those services, I can get a server and host them myself. The problem is that there is a non trivial management cost for that. And if I want to do that, I would need to invest quite some time in doing so. The plus side is that if there is an issue, I can fix this. The down side is that if there is an issue, I need to fix it.
In the end, it come down to how much you trust the service provider, more than anything else. I don't think it is feasible to ignore those services, or even in any way smart. But you do have to be cautious about who you are using, and have a planned strategy to back out of this service, or move to another one. In my case, some of those strategies means falling back to gool ol' Excel and digging through my email.
For some things, like my email, I don't have a fallback strategy. If Gmail is down, I am going to be pissed, but the features that I get from Gmail is so important to my workflow that I can't imagine doing it any other way.
Trust, that is all there is.