Moving life online

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website too]

The range of new web-based services on offer is vast and growing.

Inspired by the early success of innovators like the Flickr photo-sharing site and Google Maps, and funded by venture capitalists who seem to have recovered from the trauma of the dotcom crash, we’re seeing site launches daily, many of them documented on the delightfully upbeat Techcrunch blog.

There are attempts to replace Microsoft Office with web-based word processing and spreadsheets, collaborative working tools for distributed organisations and of course a vast range of mapping and routefinding services.

Older offerings like shared bookmaking, social networking and recruitment services are all being reinvented with added Web 2.0 features, and we mustn’t forget the way email, instant messaging and other communications systems are taking advantage of the new approach to developing dynamic websites to improve usability and integration.

While the funding situation provides part of the incentive for the newly-energised technology scene, there are other more prosaic factors at work, of which the most important is the increasing availability of fast, reliable internet connections, at least here in the developed West.

Now that most people in Europe and the US can get online whenever they want, even when they are on the move, services are being offered which assume connectivity and encourage users to offload as much as possible of their computing to the network.

This is clearly the motivation behind the new generation of online data storage services. Flickr, Google Video and YouTube all let users upload pictures and video, but we are also seeing a resurgence of network-based data storage,  with Google’s much-hyped ‘Gdrive’ due to launch next year, and Microsoft now talking about ‘Live Drive’ as part of its wide-ranging Windows Live service.

Another area that is generating a lot of interest are online calendars, especially following Google’s entry into the field.

It’s an application that is of some interest to me, largely because my daughter and I have been wresting with ways to share our calendars for the past few months, and this may offer a solution to the problem.

She has a Windows laptop and a handheld that runs Windows Mobile, so she’s pretty firmly in the Outlook world and has grown used to its idiosyncrasies, while I prefer iCal on the Mac, not least because it supports the iCalendar standard for data exchange.

Instead of having to wrestle with file exports, transfers and imports – and all the many compatibility errors that occur with repeated events, incorrect data formats or simple bad design – we can both subscribe to the same calendar service, upload our respective data and then share those events that we want to.

It’s simple, it’s elegant and it seems to work, and although Yahoo! and others have been offering calendars for years, the new generation of services are simpler and more closely integrated with other web offerings.

One of the best is 30boxes, which I’ve been playing with for a while.

It’s easy to enter information and is fully integrated with iCal so that I can keep my offline and online calendars synchronised. It even lets me add your Flickr photos to your calendar automatically, so that friends who share events with you know when I’ve uploaded photos.

It’s this sort of network-based integration based around open standards, published program interfaces and a flexible business model that sets the new services apart from the older, more monolithic and closed, offerings of two or three years ago.

Yet while these new services are clearly exciting, and the sorts of integration they offer are providing a great example of how standards and openness encourage innovation, I’m not convinced that the time is right to move my entire life online.

The most obvious problem is what to do when connectivity is limited, since if your email is all on a server somewhere in the continental United States it’s rather hard to get your hands on it without a reliable internet connection.

I’ve just moved house, and has taken a couple of weeks to get my shiny new broadband connection installed and working. As a result I’ve been forced to rely on willing friends – and a few unwitting accomplices who have neglected to secure their wireless connections – for connectivity.

Since my emails are all downloaded to my laptop, I can at least read them and compose replies when I’m offline. But if I relied on a shared online calendar then I would be in big trouble after a few days without access.

Even when the connectivity problem is solved, however, there’s a bigger issue to deal with, that of trust.

All of the web-based services require users to trust the providers in two ways. First, we have to believe that the companies behind the sites will take good care of our private and personal data, and second we have to believe that they will stay in business and not turn off their servers when the money runs out.

We know, from the large and growing numbers of cases in which e-commerce sites have unwittingly exposed customers’ credit card details, that data security is far from guaranteed.

And we have seen enough net users abandoned by their bankrupt ISPs or cast offline by their failed hosting companies to know that sometimes businesses let their customers down.

So how can we be sure that the files stored on Google’s Gdrive, the photos uploaded to Flickr or the potentially embarrassing details of doctor’s appointments and meetings with illicit lovers held on 30boxes will not be exposed to the world or taken abruptly offline?

My good friend and fellow nethead Simon has been using online services for years, since well before they were trendy, and he argues that private companies will take good care of his data because it is in their commercial interest to do so.

And I have to admit that he has not yet found himself exposed – but I am still wary.

So while I’ll play with the new toys, I don’t rely on them, and I don’t use them for anything that I might consider personal or private. It’s fine keeping details of my travel plans on an online calendar, or uploading photos to Flickr, because I’m happy to share the information and photos, and I have safe copies of both at home on a computer that I own and I protect.

But it will be a while before I feel I can start to move my life online, whatever the cool technological temptations on offer.

Bill’s Links

Techcrunch blog:
Google Calendar:

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