Choosing an ecosystem for your data

You have many choices about where to put your data (email, docs, calendar, contacts): Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, open source/self-hosting, etc. One big consideration for me is how hard it is to export my data. In essence, I’m looking for the exits before I even sit down in any company’s virtual room.

For example, my wife bought an iPhone soon after it came out in 2007. Within minutes of playing with hers, I knew I’d soon be upgrading my flip phone to an iPhone as well. But I had to decide where to put my contacts, my calendar, and so forth.

At one point, my wife ran into a problem with her Apple calendar that gave a weird error. When I searched for more information on that error message, I only found five matching web pages. Eventually, I figured out that the data on Apple’s calendar server had gotten mucked up and I needed to re-push a clean version of the data from a client. That stuck in my mind because Apple can be a pretty closed ecosystem. If something stopped working, it would be harder to fix the issue not only because the ecosystem was closed, but because the ecosystem was smaller at that time.

I’m not a complete Google loyalist about my data. Most of my MP3s are from Amazon because they were among the first to offer a wide selection of music without DRM. I use CrashPlan to back up our family’s computers. I post public micro-updates on Twitter more often than on Google+. And I chose WordPress for my blog instead of Blogger in part to emphasize that this was my personal blog.

But in general, I like that Google’s ecosystem promises not to trap user data, and Eric Schmidt recently reaffirmed that principle (it’s about 29:30 into the video). In essence, if you don’t like how Google handles your email, docs, calendar, or contacts, it’s easy to take your data out and go somewhere else.

Because Google works to avoid data lock-in, it has to earn your loyalty. I like that a lot. The ability to export my data really matters to me. That’s why I’m comfortable using Twitter. And that’s one of the reasons that I deactivated my Facebook account 4.5 years ago–Facebook just didn’t feel as committed to letting me get my data back out of Facebook.

Recently my wife got the new iPhone 6. It was easy for her to pull in my Google Calendar info, but Apple doesn’t allow their calendar data to flow directly into Google Calendar. That means that Apple’s ecosystem isn’t a good match for me. Apple’s choices for their ecosystem still work well for hundreds of millions of people though.

No one ecosystem is right or wrong or best, only best for you. There’s a lot of reasons to choose a particular ecosystem, and everybody should decide what they care about for themselves. For some, it’s something that “just works.” For others, it’s the ability to tweak every single setting or directly control their own data, like with open-source. For others, it might be the size of the ecosystem. Or how much they trust the keeper of that ecosystem. Or the security of that ecosystem. For me, I usually prefer a reasonable user experience, a lot of security protection, and an escape hatch to take my data with me. That’s why I believe the Google ecosystem is the best fit for my data at this point.

20 Responses to Choosing an ecosystem for your data (Leave a comment)

  1. Good read 🙂
    I prefer Google.

  2. Matt I strongly agree with your findings and do pretty much the same.
    I experienced the same difficulties along the way and ended up moving much of my data needs to Google`s ecosystem.
    I still keep alot over at http://keepandshare.com just on the off chance that I run into a chrome snag or a beta snag.
    Thanks for sharing your journey and have a great day.

  3. There are some really good thoughts here. Are there any solid guides on building and producing your own data ecosystem though?

    And with big companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft (I suppose some of the larger social networks too like FaceBook), do they support those who wish to create their own data ecosystem? Is it easy to export, import etc – or would the responsibility of that fall on the person creating their own data ecosystem and backup solution?

    Thanks,

    ~ Studi

    • James, great questions. I think the biggest obstacle for open source or people building their own data ecosystem is usability. I still prefer writing in Google Docs over WordPress, for example. When I want to add a link, Google Docs suggests a link based on what I highlighted, which is usually what I want. And the focus is already set to the right field if I want to just start typing. All those little points of friction add up over time.

      As far as whether a big company supports those who wish to create their own data ecosystem, I think that’s a fair question to ask, and pretty close to my point about allowing data export. Going further, you’ve got companies like Amazon with AWS that make it easy to build your own cloud. Or Dropbox, which promises to handle the backend of storage for you. I guess one of my main points is that I like and support companies that allow me to leave them if I want to.

  4. I´m with you on this one, easy in, easy out and the most important thing: access my data whenever i want and the ability to organize it however i want. Thank you.

  5. Good point about Apple being a pretty closed ecosystem. Must admit that after about 6 months of finally getting to grips with the iPhone a few years ago, now have a that system. The iMac, and the iPad to boot for the syncing. I wouldn’t be without them. However I still have to have the old Windows laptop as some software will not run on Apple. Furthermore I had to upgrade the oldest laptop and hate Windows 8 – they have tried to copy Apple, of that there is no doubt, however unsuccessfully.

    • Suzy, I think a lot of people float the “Apple is closed” meme, but I doubt Apple sees it that way. My guess is that they want a magical, seamless experience that just works for people. When Apple is making the decision of (say) what hardware to build, or which apps to allow in their app store, that’s all part of their process of ensuring quality as they see it. Some may criticize Apple as closed, but I truly believe that Apple sees it as satisfying and protecting their users.

      Apple’s approach works for tons of people (including multiple members of my family), so it clearly delivers a lot of value for a large set of people. It’s not as good a match for what I care about the most, and that’s fine. I just want people to think about their ecosystem before they get too tied to any one platform.

  6. Nice writeup… And I love it when you mention Google’s competitors in your blog posts. 😉

  7. BTW, Now there’s a “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” option on Facebook.

  8. David

    Apple’s calendar software uses an open standard (CalDAV) and their server is open source ( http://trac.calendarserver.org ). Google is the one who decided to not fully implement CalDAV.

    • David, check the robots.txt for icloud.com. It blocks Google and other user agents from fetching calendar feeds. Or just do some Google searching like I did and look for a solution to import Apple’s calendars into Google Calendar.

      In particular, here’s the first few lines from https://icaltogcal.com/ which attempts to bypass Apple’s restriction: “Have you tried adding your iCloud calendar into your Google calendar? If so, you probably got this error: Could not fetch the url because robots.txt prevents us from crawling the url. Apple is telling web crawlers not to index your calendar.”

      Here’s the saddest part to me. The core of icaltogcal is only 25 lines, including comments. It’s the simplest proxy code you’re likely to see: https://github.com/jasonlfunk/icaltogcal-core . In other words, the only thing that icaltogcal does is fetch your Apple calendar data and serve it up from a URL that Apple isn’t blocking Google from fetching.

      I love that Apple often uses open standards, including CalDAV. But disallowing Google Calendar from fetching calendar feeds means that Apple’s ecosystem is less appealing to me personally.

  9. David

    Matt,

    You blame it on Apple’s robots.txt not allowing Google to look at iCloud’s calendar feeds.

    Let’s look at https://www.google.com/robots.txt

    Disallow: /calendar/feeds/
    Disallow: /calendar/ical/

    Not sure what you believe Apple is doing differently here than Google; Google is identically disallowing access to their feeds in their robots.txt.

  10. How about hacking a hodgepodge of owncloud.org and sparkleshare? Probably not as easy out of the box as the big boys, but you’d get full control minus lacking a bit of syncing.

  11. My iPhone keeps giving an error message of not enough space to back up the phone….I don’t want to have to buy space – I have everything on the iMac. Should I buy some space guys or just click to ignore?

  12. Until ecosystems are not connected, Google ecosystem is the best.

  13. Yes, it’s true. I personally subscribe to the idea of ‘what works’ and then keep it from there. Though I like exploring new alternatives; especially if a new device or software arises. The Google ecosystem works best for me as I do most of my work there, and transferring data is easy. But I keep my options open, like everyone else.

  14. Well frankly speaking I am not much familiar with using these eco systems for my data but still I always prefer Google for such activities.

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