The reasons for using an ASP are quite sufficiently described by the companies touting them as solutions. On the surface, ASPs look very attractive for many reasons. As with the current dot.com madness, there are some important but too often overlooked issues with using ASP-based applications. Here I provide six reasons why users might choose to remain with the more traditional, locally-running application:
What happens with ASPs is that you will probably not be able to get at your data en masse at all. You probably won't be able to get a restorable backup in your own hands. You probably won't be able to export the data from that ASP into some format usable locally or by another ASP. I use the word "probably" above because, while it's possible that an ASP might provide for one or two of them, they're all not in the best interest of the ASP itself, so they're not going to want to do them. If they do, there will have been arm-twisting involved.
My experience divorcing myself from the Yahoo! email ASP is a good example of how data lock-in can affect users. I had a simple goal: offload a copy of all of my archived email so I could search it locally without involving Yahoo!, Netscape, PPP, and a phone line.
I had been trying for about two years to get Yahoo! to provide a means of exporting folders. I griped about this to a friend, who thought for a bit, focused on the messages instead of the folders (duh!) and this approach emerged:
It's pretty nasty, because while you're doing this, incoming mail can get mixed with the archived messages. Given that this isn't Yahoo!'s solution, but rather just a user's ONLY choice, that can be an acceptable risk.
First, clear the inbox. You'll be doing that a lot. Move all messages from folder A to the inbox, use POP to pull all email from the inbox to the local machine, save locally into a new folder named A. Repeat for all other folders...
If you ever try this, you'll quickly wish Yahoo! had a "select all" button in their folder interface. Users are forced to hand-select EVERY SINGLE EMAIL MESSAGE in each folder, one-by-one (fun when you have over 5,000 archived messages, as I did), to be able to transfer them to the inbox. Also, enabling POP involves agreeing that Yahoo! can send you advertisements via email. No Thanks...
The procedure is labor-intensive, error prone, and can easily take more than a day if you've got as much archived email as I had. At my normal billing rate, divorcing myself from my "free" Yahoo! account cost me over $1,000 in the end.
The phone companies have the "Mother's Day effect" -- statistical analysis done on usage patterns must often ignore data from Mother's Day or the numbers will be just plain wrong. ASPs will have similar problems with miriad users connecting from 6PM to 8PM in certain situations (what's on TV?) from 8AM to 10AM in others (how are my stocks doing?) and on certain days of the week as well (what's going on this weekend?).
"If you don't want us to sell your information, we'll try not to. But accidents happen. We might sell it anyway. You agree there's nothing you can do about it."
After having just presented six compelling reasons to stay away from ASPs, it may be hard to believe that I'm actually a supporter of the idea. Well, I am, but with significant changes from the way ASPs work today. I learned a long time ago that problems are easier to swallow when chased by solutions, so I'll provide a short description of potential solutions to each problem. Now, whether you LIKE the approaches below is another thing entirely... :-)
Pick a pen name -- a pseudonym -- and a non-existent mailing address, but with the city, state, and zip code correct. Most importantly, use a Web-based email account, such as Yahoo!'s email, as a pseudo-id. This is an account where all you do is throw away incoming email; ASPs will email you there to verify your ID, and send you advertisements there as well. It's your own personal digital garbage can; enjoy it.
Armed with the above, you can safely manage to use ASP services without compromising your privacy, for the most part. If you have a fixed IP address, however, you're sunk on the privacy issue. Fixed IP addresses are a bad idea if you like privacy and anonymity.
I'm interested in learning of any other problems inherent in the concept of ASP-based computing that you are aware of; please contact me at email@example.com with the details. But please don't ask me to help you get your email archives off Yahoo!; doing that once was more than enough for me!
Before co-founding OpenCountry, Paul Reiber worked as a software product architect. He has been immersed in UNIX/Linux and Internet technologies for almost 20 years. As an early adopter, he has extensive experience building and repairing Open Source software including collaboration and infrastructure software. Paul has programmed in more languages than he can remember. His list of happy customers includes Ford, GM, EDS, NYNEX, FedEx, and Sun.
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