Death to web services. Long live web services!

Yahoo! is apparently shutting down Delicious, which has people falling all over themselves backing up their own data from the site and putting their bookmarks onto lesser-known services, which I’m sure will all exist until the end of time. These moves are sometimes underscored by many on Twitter by claiming that these other services “are better than Delicious anyway”, which they very well may be, although these comments reek of justification. No need: if you want to move your bookmarks, they’re yours. Just move them.

But that’s the thing: we’re talking about bookmarks, the loss of which will hardly leave you living out of a cardboard box. And what happens when bad things happen to Flickr? GMail? Evernote? That site you do all your finances on? Project management and invoicing? Time tracking?

You may back up all your data, which makes the downfall of any of these services less painful. Unless you just keep your original photos on your own computer, but all of your photo metadata was entered on Flickr and you have no backup of that. Poof! But we all know Flickr’s not going anywhere, right? Too many users. Actively developed. Very popular. Cough. It’s the same reason we can depend on YQL (which I still find absolutely brilliant BTW). Yahoo! will give us all at least six months notice if they decide to pull the plug on YQL, which gives us the time to change all of the client work we made utilizing it. And of course our clients will have six months to get a budget to hire us to make the necessary changes.

But what are we complaining about? It’s all free. Having to move our bookmarks is not really a huge problem, but we all seem appalled that large companies care about money. Since when is this an anomaly? Company sees something cool, hopes to make money, buys it, doesn’t make enough money, poof. Here’s a truth for you: most companies only care about your data insofar as this data can help them make money. They have this site and you fill it. You fill it.

A couple of years ago I was on the fence about this. No longer. For a while we’ve posted our data all over the internet on all types of services. These services provide APIs so we can access the data we put into them, so that we can do things with that data. Read that again.

Richard Stallman, in his usual come-out-swinging way, has commented on this before. And I believe he has a point. Our data is our own, and it’s up to us to look after it. But how?

What if we flipped this all on its head? What if we hosted our own data, and provided APIs for all these webapps so that they can use our data? I can imagine that to be a substantially cool use of RDFa/Microformats and whatever metadata/semantic web technologies you prefer. Isn’t one of the points of the semantic web to make decentralized information meaningful, retrievable and mixable?

So instead of having our own websites aggregate our own data from other people’s websites, we’ll let other people use the data from our own websites. Photos, meaningfully tagged, can be pulled in by Flickr via our own personal API, if you will. We provide the structured data, Flickr provides the functionality. The sharing. The social. Why not?

Personal publishing platforms like WordPress, Drupal, [your favorite here] could be extended to make use of microformatting, RDF, etc. and provide tools for syndication, as we now do with simple blogposts. Services don’t need to host our data. They only need to do cool things with it. So when I quit service X, or service Y falls the Way of GeoCities, I don’t need to do anything but cancel my account. Or leave it and forget about it. If I change my information, it’s automatically changed on all the services using it. Storage space is up to me. Privacy settings? Totally up to me.

Awesome, providing the host doesn’t go *poof*.

Let’s get to it.

[Disclaimer: As some services die, some of the above links will rot. Make of that what you will.]

[UPDATE: Please also read Jeremy Keith's related post from 2008.]

18 thoughts on “Death to web services. Long live web services!

  1. I reacently started using Delicious again, then hear it’s being pulled. No biggie, but I like services for trivial data such as bookmarks.
    Hosting our own stuff would be great. In fact Picasa and iPhoto/Apature, in a way, already do this. Your stuff is on your computer. If the web service goes dead you still have got your stuff. In this light dropbox makes sense. Have your stuff locally and share it online. Open formats make more sense than ever.

  2. Thought provoking post.

    Last week, I switched off the creaky old PHP image gallery on my web site and just link to my Flickr stream. Trouble is, can I rely on it? I’ve already opened up all my photos via Opera Unite, as my mum and dad can’t right-click on Flickr and grab the pics I publish of their grandkids.So my stuff is in the cloud and hosted locally.

    Trouble is, most people won’t mark up their own data with RDFa etc. It’s too hard.

  3. @egor: Agreed re Dropbox, etc.

    @bruce: I wouldn’t opt for marking up your data by hand. This should be integrated into a fairly intuitive and easy-to-use interface on your own publishing platform. Entry needn’t be harder than all the tagging and other things you add in Flickr, Delicious, etc. Yours is a cool use of Opera Unite. And I think things like Opera Unite will gain more ground in the future. At least I hope so.

  4. This is a great post, some really good ideas in here. I think hosting our own data is a fantastic idea, it would be great to be able to just host your ‘profile’ once and have everything else draw from that. That way you only have to update your own personal set of data. Sure it would still have to be hosted somewhere (unless you leave your machine on 24/7) but a desktop / web app information manager could be used as a front end, or even a wordpress install as you mentioned.

    This is no doubt likely to bring up some questions of security, having a public facing API for your data, but I still live by “if you don’t want it known, don’t put it online” and tech such as OAuth is really very strong now.

    This has got some ideas raging in my developer head now, unfortunately I don’t have much time to experiment!

    Also RE: bruce, why would people have to markup their stuff in RDFa why can’t a web app etc do it for them? Even more chance of everything being standardised that way.

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  6. so what happens when your hard drive crashes or you have your own personal datacenter outage?

    sadly neither solution is perfect. as someone who had the misfortune of having two hard drives die in one year (one due to crap hardware, the other to my own clumsiness), i am not convinced that self-hosting is superior to a service. each has its pros and cons.

  7. @Tiffany I understand your point, and while you can arrange for backups of your own hosted data and get them back up, you can’t do much when Company X scraps their service.

  8. You need to follow the Unhosted project (http://www.unhosted.org) They are trying to do something very similar to what you’re describing. It’s a really exciting idea as it sidesteps walled gardens, puts users in control, and really moves us towards a content-centric view of networks and the internet.

  9. @tiffany — I see this working more like how WordPress operates. There is wordpress.org where you can download the wordpress software to use on your own system, and then there is WordPress.com which supplies a fully hosted wordpress experience for users who appreciate that convenience or are not as tech-savvy.

    If the world moves in the direction that this article is advocating then we are likely to see a whole lot of innovation in the area of managing your data for you. Then you can either decide to host your own data, or make the decision to host your data with a company you trust (your ISP, a security company, a non-profit organization) as opposed to some internet service you just found that seems like it might be neat.

  10. I agree with this post 100% … it’s what I am working on full time at the moment. :-)
    Check out my project, PageKite. It (hopes to) solve most of the network-related problems which keep people from running their own web-servers on their own devices, which I consider to be one of the big underlying problems keeping people from doing exactly what you describe. It’s very technical still, but given time…

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