Google provides free email but you’ve got to store your email on their servers (unless you use a pop client). Same with Google Calendar, Writely, JotSpot, Google Reader (they’ve got your OPML file), etc, etc. Same with any other web app you use, like Hotmail, Typepad, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.
Free web apps come with a hidden price. You are storing your private data on someone else’s servers. And the biggest complaint I hear about the coming world of web apps is that many users are not comfortable with their data being stored anywhere but on their own servers.
I think anyone who provides a web app should give users options for where the data gets stored. The default option should always be to store the data on the web app provider’s servers. Most people will choose that option because they don’t care enough about this issue to do anything else.
The next option should be to store the data on some other web storage system, like Amazoon’s S3. I think Google should make a deal with Amazon to offer S3 as an option for all of Google’s web apps. You’d pay for this privilege, maybe you pay Google and they pay Amazon. Or maybe you just pay Amazon.
The third option is to save the data on a “dumb storage appliance”. A dumb storage appliance could be something like a Buffalo Terrastaion or an Infrant box which offers a terabyte of data for less than $1000. In my imagination, you’d simply put the appliance on your network, get an IP address, and enter that IP address in the web app storage configuration page and all your data goes there instead. I am guessing that it’s not that simple, and certainly firewalls wreak havoc on this scheme, but I do think it’s not impossible to do this simply and easily.
Why does this matter? Because trust is going to become a bigger issue going forward. I realize that many people trust Google and others to safeguard their data. But the best way to garner trust is to tell people that they “own their data” and they have the right to put it anywhere they want. The simply act of doing that will garner even more trust.
To be honest, I would rather be storing all my blog posts somewhere other than TypePad. My RSS feed provides a simple way to pull all of that content out of TypePad, so it doesn’t keep me up at night. But I’d love it if I was able to back up three years of posts (well over 1000 posts) onto the Infrant box in my basement. Same with my Flickr account and my YouTube account.
So I would like to see someone take some leadership in this area. Google is the logical leader. But if they won’t do it, then Microsoft and Yahoo! and others should. I think whomever takes a leadership position on this issue will get a lot of good karma from users as a result.