The Stochastic Game

Ramblings of General Geekery

Data First

I like to think I’m being careful and responsible with my data, especially when I look at what most people do with theirs, so I thought I’d start a new series of posts on the subject.

Hard Disk

Data-first” is about choosing applications, services and devices based, first and foremost, on the data that you will get out of them, or the data they accept as input. It’s important because, at the end of the day, once you’ve quit your apps and turned off your devices, your data is the only thing that’s left, and the only thing from which you’ll start again tomorrow. It’s also the only thing you’ll have when you decide to switch to different applications, different OSes, or different devices.

Who is this for?

Some companies – Apple, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft – want you to trust them with your data. Trust that they will keep it available to you as the technological landscape around us changes. Trust that they will keep it stored for the next 50 years or so. And that they’ll always be there to unlock the files for you. And that they’ll pass it all on to your kids when you die.

If you can trust at least one of them, “data-first” is probably not for you. Instead you’ll choose the path of least resistance where all you have to do is tap a button on your iPad or Kindle Fire, watch that movie or read that book, and forget about it. Did you just rent or purchase? Do you own or merely lease? Does it have DRM? What about maybe switching to another eco-system in the future? Who cares! I applaud your ability to not worry about such things. Be on your way, you blissfully lucky person, I wish you well.

If you’re like me, however, there’s no way you can think that way. Being French means, at best, having a… let’s say: a “healthy” distrust of governments and corporations. Even if I trusted a company right now (which I don’t), I have no guarantee that the next CEO or board of directors are not going to screw their customers over. And this is important when you want to keep consuming your data for a long time. Am I ever going to stop re-watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “The Shining”? Or stop re-reading any Alan Moore comic? Probably not. And how long is “Game Of Thrones” going to last? Another 6 years, maybe? Remember how things were 6 years ago? Yeah, that was when people were eagerly waiting for the first iPhone to be released, and Netflix was still about mailing DVDs to people.

So no, I will not trust anybody but myself to manage my data for the next 50 years, let alone the next 10.

What is it for?

Keep in mind that the “data-first” approach has nothing to do with services and applications where you’re not supposed to keep any data. This includes iTunes rentals and subscription based services like Spotify or Netflix. I have absolutely no problem with those, which I use extensively.

What it’s for is any data you’ve chosen to purchase (videos, music, books, whatever), or that you have created or shared (emails, IMs, or other social media bullshit). That’s what we’ll be talking about.

Data-first” posts will be tagged with the eponymous tag, so keep an eye on it for case-by-case studies.

Tough Time for Honest Comics Readers

JManga, a digital manga service created less than 2 years ago by 39 of the biggest publishers in Japan, is shutting down in a couple months. Most cloud services related fears became a reality when it was clear no refund or backups would be offered. Check out their “Urgent Message” for more details, but believe me when I say it can’t get any worse:

It is not possible to download manga from My Page. All digital manga content will no longer be viewable after May 30th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time)

Everybody then wondered what would happen if ComiXology went down. And funnily enough, just the day before, ComiXology had experienced a massive blackout which left people unable to read any issues they didn’t have in their cache.

Rich Jonston from Bleeding Cool concludes:

This is the moment when the real winners are comic stores… and pirates.

As I said before, and as many others said before me: own your data. Cloud services are fine by me as long as there’s a way to easily backup my stuff on my file server, thank you very much.

The Death of Google Reader

After the infamous announcement that Google was shutting down Google Reader, there was a lot of debates around the use of online services, especially free ones, and whether we can trust a company to keep such services up indefinitely.

Of course, nothing can last “indefinitely”, and probably nothing will last until you die. You have to expect that Gmail, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon Kindle and any other service you’re currently using won’t last for more than, say, 20 years (and that’s being generous). You need to plan accordingly.

Marco Arment sums this up on his blog:

Always have one foot out the door. Be ready to go.

This isn’t cynical or pessimistic: it’s realistic, pragmatic, and responsible.

That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I choose programs, services and products that don’t take my data away from me. It makes it easier to switch to something else if I need/want to, and it future-proofs what I spend money on.

But that’s where it gets interesting, because Google Reader was pretty open to begin with. Google may have become this data hoarding and privacy raping monster over the years, but one thing they always had going for them was the Data Liberation initiative. With it, you effectively always had one foot out the door. You could, at any moment, download a list of all your subscriptions in an open, standardized format, along with a collection of all your stars, comments, and shares. You may be disrupted for a while because you would need to adapt to a new feed reader, but you could switch, just like you can switch text editors or operating systems.

What’s wrong with the Google Reader situtation has nothing to do with your data, or with using a free service (although that is an important subject too). What happened is that Google Reader became a lot more than a free online feed reader. It became a single choke point for virtually every feed reader or news aggregator in the world. Google is of course to blame for making it a collateral damage of their social-wannabe delusions, but we are equally to blame for letting all those programs like Flipboard, Pulse or NetNewsWire rely on a single service that was never really intended to be used that way. It’s understandable it ended up this way, because relying on Google Reader meant easier adoption for new users and not having to worry about complex problems like data storage, metadata syncing, and interoperability… but it doesn’t make it the right decision either. We are to blame because we were constantly asking for Google Reader support. It became a feature you couldn’t ship without.

The death of Google reader is not about losing a product we love – it’s about breaking an entire eco-system of products and workflows.

Hopefully, we’ll recover and things will be better, but it does bring up another debate: the one about how we rely so much on other single choke points like Twitter and Facebook. Ideally, everything should be federated, like email, but I tried looking at distributed alternatives, and they’re just not working well enough. If the links you share and photos you post are of any value to you, I’d suggest you start looking at data harvesting solutions. I know I am.

The Problem with iOS

These past few months I’ve seen a fair number of articles about people who switched from iOS to Android. Most of those articles talk about the differences between the 2 operating systems, and how some of those differences proved to be significant enough for whoever was switching: multitasking, notifications, the so-called “open vs. closed”, etc. That’s fine, but these specific bullet point list vs. bullet point list comparisons seem to be missing the higher level view of what’s really going on: iOS is just not working the way it should anymore.