Companies must stop designing proprietary locked-down services

It’s possible to have convenient, powerful online services without worrying that one day we could lose everything

On May 15, 2016, the company that runs Revolv (a smart-home hub) will be intentionally bricking (for all intents and purposes) every single Revolv hub device ever sold—by killing the server the device depends upon and not providing any ability to self-host that service.

The company that’s shutting off this service and bricking these (not cheap) devices? Google. Essentially. Revolve was acquired by Nest. Nest was acquired by Google. Google then changed to Alphabet and made Nest one of the companies owned by Alphabet. So, in a nutshell, Google.

After having countless conversations on this topic over the past few weeks, I have come to one inescapable conclusion:

We’re all stupid.

Every single one of us—myself included—who buys into and relies on proprietary, locked-down services is just straight-up dumb. We’re talking monumental levels of dumbness here. Like our arch rival leaves a giant wooden horse outside our city gates, and we just say, “Hey! Cool! Free wooden horse!” and bring it right inside. That kind of stupid.

I’ve lost track of the number of software, hardware and services that, in the last few years, have turned out to be a bad idea to have relied upon. And the more I think about it—and hear horror stories from others—the more ridiculous it becomes that I continue using any such services.

The Revolv example is a good one. People had a “lifetime subscription” to the service that is required for this device to operate. Seems like a good, sound investment, right? Lifetime! It’ll last forever! Turns out “lifetime” really just means “maybe a couple years—or whenever the company decides they don’t want to work on it anymore.”

The problem with relying on a proprietary, locked-down online service 

It’s not simply companies shutting down services that is the problem (though that is a huge problem). There a number of big issues with being reliant on a proprietary, locked-down online service.

Any of you have an Xbox One? If Microsoft’s Xbox Live service is down or unreachable, for any reason (network issues, server stability problems, authentication errors, their data center getting hacked, power outages, etc.), that Xbox is all but bricked. You can’t even use it to watch a YouTube video.

How about app stores? Google Play, iTunes, Windows Store and the like. Most of you are probably like me and have a not-insignificant investment in software (productivity and games) in one or more of these application stores. What happens if the company running them decides to close it down? Your investment (money, time and workflow) is straight out the window.

It gets even more frightening than that. I was a kid during the Atari 2600 and NES days. I still own most of my video game consoles and games. That means that I can still play them (along with my old DOS games). And, perhaps even more important for me, I can play them with my kids—to experience the joys of 1980s gaming with them.

What about the kids who are growing up right now and playing games on Android devices—where all of the games are purchased through a locked-down online store? Will they be able to play those exact same games in 30 years? Highly, highly unlikely. I’m not even sure we can count on those app stores (and the software contained within them) existing 10—or even 5—years from now.

Use Gmail? What happens if/when Google shuts it down (like they’ve done with so many of their services)? Can you download and self-host the Gmail service on your own server to continue having the same experience? Of course not. Your data is stored and controlled by Google. Google keeps their proprietary service running for as long as it is profitable for them. And if you want to self-host Gmail, you are straight out of luck.

The examples go on and on. I’m sure all of you can think up a few terrifying scenarios yourself.

A solution to the problem 

Here’s the thing: none of these problems needs to exist. We can still have convenient, powerful online services without the possibility of losing everything constantly looming over our heads.

Online services such as Gmail could easily solve many of these problems by simply providing the source code for their service so that in the event the service goes away (or becomes undesirable), people can run their own instance and continue using the services they have become so reliant upon. It doesn’t even need to be terribly easy to setup and run. Simply making it possible would be a huge step in the right direction.

The various “App Stores” could, likewise, get around this issue by providing some sort of backup of all the installation files (such as the .apk on Android) for the versions of the software you’ve purchased and allow you to download and install them outside of the application store.

You know. Like software used to be. When this problem didn’t really exist.

Why do companies do this? 

A good question to ask at this point is, “Why do companies design their services to be so incredibly locked down—so that we’re all likely to lose our data and purchases?”

There are, really, two answers:

  1. Simple, bad design decisions. Every software developer has, unintentionally, made a bad design decision. Something that really screwed things up. It happens.
  2. It’s on purpose to ensure that customers need to buy new instances of software/hardware as the old services go offline.

Being as this problem—locked down, proprietary online siloed services—is incredibly prevalent (and seems to be expanding rapidly), I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that most companies do it on purpose.

Whatever the root cause for these truly terrible decisions on the part of companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple (and so many others), there are two things we can do to help persuade them to stop this malicious activity.

  1. We talk about it it. We tell them, directly, that we straight up don’t like their actions. We talk about it publicly. Articles. Blog posts. Videos. Podcasts. Letters to the editor in your local paper. We, in short, make noise that forces them to respond and think about the issue.
  2. We take our business elsewhere. For services like Gmail, we simply move to something that gives us more freedom. For app stores, we stop buying from them entirely—and if we find software in them that we like, we email the developer to ask them how we can buy the software outside of the locked-down app stores. Developers want sales. If even just a few people contact them, they’ll at least consider making another option to purchase available.

Those are two simple things we can do. Though, admittedly, that second one is easier said than done. I’d like to get to a point where I can state proudly that I am not in any way reliant on a proprietary, closed service, but I’m not quite there yet. One day. I hope.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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