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App Outages and File Lockouts, In The Cloud And On The Ground

If you had no trouble reaching this post and never worried that you would, the first half of today's column -- in which I decry the unreliability of some Web-based applications -- may not quite resonate with you.

So in the second half of the piece, I compared that risk to an older problem caused by some of the most widely used desktop applications: proprietary file formats that can't easily be opened in competing programs.

On reflection, I decided that the second problem is worse. Companies that don't have death wishes usually get their Web services back up after an outage pretty quickly, but some of the closed formats I mention in the story have been around for a decade or more and show no signs of being opened.

And yes, I use some of them myself -- more than I thought I did when I began writing the column. On the Mac I'm typing this on, I've got Intuit's Quicken and Apple's Numbers, Pages and Mail (although at least that least program doesn't take that much effort to convert its mail files into ones readable in other e-mail applications).

On the other hand, I'm actually doing well compared to many users. For example, the calendar and contacts applications on this computer use standard, open file formats that require no special conversion to be used elsewhere.

How much of your data is held in some company's proprietary format? And how much does that bug you? Or are you more worried about the risk of your data falling out of your reach when a Web-based service has an outage at the wrong time?

(When you're done discussing these somewhat depressing topics, click over to this week's podcast. Unlike most, it features actual musical talent, courtesy of this week's guest: singer-songwriter and generally smart Web guy Jonathan Coulton.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 22, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Numbers and Pages will save in open formats if you're willing to lose some formatting. CSV files for Numbers (or Excel) and text files (for Pages or Word) will hold the data and some of the layout. So important data, in addition to being backed up, is saved in multiple formats.

Or you can save in HTML, but the html generators used in those apps makes really bloated files.

But all my music is drm free AAC or MP3, all my images are jpegs, all my videos are mp4.

Posted by: wiredog | May 22, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I use OpenOffice's format's at home. Also, JoCo rules!

Posted by: Hemisphire | May 22, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Good reminder...I had been thinking about configuring to download a local copy of my gmail account's in progress right now. Very simple using the imap configuration.

Posted by: pjgeraghty | May 22, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Why oh why did I not keep my copy of DBase 4. I'm sure if I root around enough I can find a translator, but for now my files are locked. Too bad!

Posted by: Geezer4 | May 22, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Using a mixed strategy (for example, use GMail plus a POP or IMAP client on your local machine) can give you, in some sense, the best of both worlds, assuming you pick client software that uses open file formats (e.g., OpenOffice). You have the security of having a local copy of your data, plus Web access. And there's one more benefit you don't address: you have a backup copy of your mail (in this case) on Google's servers.

Posted by: richg74 | May 24, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Geezer4, open office calc will open dbase files. You may lose indexes but the data should be accessible.

Alpha4 (DOS) uses the dbase format and costs around $100. I use it in preference to anything else because it is very easy.

Posted by: eteonline | May 26, 2009 9:47 AM | Report abuse

You just gave one more argument for supporting open source: open file formats. Open file formats, file translators, and software competes on its own merits: everyone wins. (Except peddlers of lousy software to captive audiences.)

Rob Pegoro, meet Richard Stallman.

Posted by: icyone | May 27, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

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