Monday, March 30, 2009

When Recession Meets the Cloud

I often do workshops and presentations on Web 2 and social media, but you'll now hear a new hesitation in the current topics I cover. In the past (a few brief months ago), I passionately demonstrated and encouraged the shift from desktop work to the amazing collaborative possibilities in shared knowledge creation via the cloud. Wikis, Blogs, RSS, Google Apps, flickr, furl...endless tools for combinatory work in creating emergent and consensus-based information. A new digital world, literacy, connectivism.

I don't change my philosophies lightly, but in a workshop this weekend for the Phoenix Think Tank, I proposed caution. Working in the cloud means your data exists out there, and it doesn't take a mind like Ray Kurzweil's to know that some of the companies providing free tools we're accessing will go bust up ahead. Never is it more important to have a backup of your data. And backups of data originally entered in the cloud aren't easy to access, shape, manage or recreate for meaning.

Free wasn't a sustainable business model. Great software, free accounts, almost unlimited storage. What happens to our collaborative mind maps if MindMeister folds? To our common galleries, and personal collections, if flickr falls? To our shared documents, calendars, spreadsheets if Google takes down the free versions of GoogleApps?  What, lose Google stuff?? Yes, dear reader, even Google users,  knowing that the G-kids are richer than God, aren't immune. I lost all my avatar work when Google abandoned Lively, and now that they're shutting down GooglePages, I'm expecting the same to happen to the Web site I have there. Even the wealthiest vendors may become tired of providing a free lunch in troubled times. And the ones hanging on by a thread will no longer be able to sustain the investment.

So I'll continue to promote the tools I demontrated for the Think Tank:

A rich discussion related to the  "we smarter than me" wisdom of crowds philosophy ensued, and included the rise of Wikipedia, and concerns regarding the definition of expert, smart and literate in the digital, just-in-time everything age. 

Great group. Great discussion. Still lots of enthusiasm regarding social media, but business-minded people know that we're in a new dot.com (and every other kind of com) bust and it may not be wise to depend on these tools being here tomorrow. There's no such thing as a free lunch OR free software. You pay somehow. In the past, with Web 2, the publicity and advertising worked for vendors. Don't expect it to work for all of them in the months ahead.

My guess is that most of the survivors will succeed through a tiered system of features and services. SurveyMonkey provides great entry tools for free, but if you need to download and do deeper analysis on your data, you pay for a deeper license.  In the future, I'm guessing many vendors will find current services unsustainable. 

If your software has value to the user, it has a chance. Otherwise, we'll give up the toys that clutter our bookmarks. We'll choose more cautiously: 
  • individuals will pay for features they need, 
  • companies will pay for ROI-driven tools that are backed by security, privacy and firewalls (see Google's commercial offering of GoogleApps), and 
  • those of us who love techno-bling will pay for the next affordable killer app that lures us in and makes us realize we just can't do without it. (Take a look at IntroNetwork's social networking software for a new candidate in this category!)
That's what I talked about at the last presentation. But I'm known to change my mind. And as Dennis Miller used to say after his infamous rants, "I could be wrong."
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