Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Cloudy With a Chance of Lock-In

There lots of products that came to market in the recent past and that will come to market in the near future that use some kind of cloud hosted component. In many cases these products rightly use some kind of off-device service in order to provide you with features that would otherwise not be possible. Sometimes these features are so much part of the core product that the whole idea would be dead in the water without it. Facebook or Twitter without connectivity wouldn’t amount to much so there clearly are cases where it makes sense to have a service that extends onto the device where the device acts as a terminal and a large part or even all of the product lives on someone else’s servers.

But there are also many products for which it makes very little or even no sense at all to have a cloud based component. In many of these cases if you look a bit more closely at what is being sold you’ll realize that these are just instances of a business-model that was grafted on as an afterthought onto something that would have worked really well stand-alone but where the creators weren’t happy with a one-time fee from potential buyers. They needed a way to turn a one-shot product into a repeat business and the easiest way to do that is to split a product up into a data portion and a terminal portion and to keep all the data and processing on a central server. Come up with some good excuse to set things up this way and there is a good chance that you can get away with it.

The last couple of years have seen ever more blatant abuses of this kind of trick to the point where even the most close study of the applications has not been able to reveal a reason why the ‘cloud’ should even be a factor in the design of the product. Some examples: internet-of-things applications that come with a mandatory subscription to get your own data back, televisions that require you to sign up with an online service in order to be able to use the TV’s built in browser, navigation devices or apps that contain all the bits and pieces required to work except that they somehow also require you to sign up with a service before the device will function. The list is absolutely endless.

I hate these clouds-grafted-on devices and applications with a passion. There are only a few things more certain than death and taxes and one of those is that the device I own will outlive the required service component so sooner or later (and plenty of times sooner) I’ll end up with an expensive door-stop or presse papier. Besides that I really don’t see the need for all these services to get their grubby little hands on my data and as a rule they don’t provide an option to use local storage or make the subscription component optional. In the case of the TV the service component wasn’t even mentioned at all until well after installing the bloody thing (I don’t actually watch the TV as a TV but it is a nice big screen and the ability to use it as a browser would have saved me to have to set up a computer next to it, fortunately a raspberry pi is both cheap and will happily solve this problem but it’s kind of non-sensical since all the required hardware was already present and hooked up). If the product would have been better without the service component that’s a sure sign someone has been busy pulling the wool over your eyes. Graceful degradation without connectivity or an account created for the device isn’t even an option for that situation because then absolutely nobody would sign up for the service, so instead of dropping the requirement they make it mandatory instead! (All this of course to ‘better serve you’ and ‘for your convenience’, those two sentence fragments are like little alarm bells that you’re about to be screwed.)

Software as a service to many people is the way to convert what used to be licensed software into a repeat revenue stream and in principle there is nothing wrong with that if done properly (Adobe almost gets it right). But if the internet connection is down and your software no longer works, if the data you painstakingly built up over years goes missing because a service dies or because your account gets terminated for no apparent reason and without any recourse you might come to the same conclusion that I came to: if it requires an online service and is not actually an online product I can do just fine without it.