May 17th, 2008

Dear Web Applications: Where Are My Files?


What’s wrong with the “friends connection” programs announced by Facebook, MySpace, and Google? Many people have been trying to explain the principle of data portability as if it were a new concept, but it’s actually not. It’s been on our PCs for years.

Think about the applications you use on your computer — the ones that run LOCALLY on your computer. They all produce files. You’ve got your word processor files, your spreadsheet files, your presentation files, your accounting software files. You create some data with the application then save it to your drive. You can take you take those files and put them on any other computer and open them with any application that supports the file type.

Think .doc, .xls, .jpg, .mp3

Web applications are different, because they don’t run on your computer — they run on the servers of the application provider. You access the application over the web, using your web browser.

So the application isn’t on your computer. And neither is the data you create with the application. That, too, is stored on the servers of the application provider.

Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are applications that run on the web. You can use them to create data, just like applications on your computer. You can enter information about yourself in your profile, and you can create connections to your friends profiles.

All the information is stored in your profile — on the Facebook’s or MySpace’s servers.

You can’t actually get at the “file” with your profile data. It’s in a big database, not separated out like the files on your computer.

Here’s “data portability” in a nutshell: I used the Facebook application to enter data. Where’s my file? I want to save it on my computer, and maybe use other applications to open it.

What the Friend Connect programs do is let other applications read SOME of your file on Facebook, MySpace, etc. But these programs don’t let you actually take your file, save it, move it, do what you want with it, like the files on your desktop. And they don’t let other applications fully open your file.

Why won’t Facebook and other web applications give you your “files”? Because you didn’t pay for the software. When you buy Microsoft Office, you get a copy of the software to keep and use as you please, so there are no limits on how you use or store the data you create with the application.

But many web applications aren’t charging for the software. Instead, they want to sell ads, i.e. they want to be media companies. That’s how Google, a software application company, got rich. So that’s what everyone else wants to do.

But to sell ads, Facebook et al need your data. And they need you to keep using the applications. And if you can take your files with you, then maybe you — and all of your friends — will start using another application. OR you’ll keep using Facebook, but you’ll create data with another application that Facebook can’t access.

That’s why Facebook created Facebook Platform for others to build applications — so it can keep all the data.

Ask Nick O’Neill puts it plainly:

While I am a fan of data portability, the reality is that true data portability kills social network sites. If we take data portability to the extreme and I was able to export all of my data and contacts from Facebook, Facebook would be nothing more than a well designed communications platform. Perhaps in the end that’s all they will be but for now, their valuations have been based on their skyrocketing user base.

Want to explain “data portability” to a non-geek Facebook user? Ask them if they’ve saved their Facebook file to their computer. Ask them if they’ve backed up their Facebook data. Ask them where their Facebook data is.

Facebook, MySpace and other social networks want to base their business models on the absence of an application feature so basic it’s been around since the earliest days of PCs.

And the reality is that you don’t have to literally save your web application files to your computer hard drive. You can keep them on the web.

But you should be able to put them on any web server you want. And use them with any compatible application. (See Dare Obasanjo for the difference between data portability and interoperability.)

If cloud computing, web applications, and the web as OS is really going to replace local computing, it needs to have more features, not fewer.

If Facebook et al want to have long-term viable businesses, they need to keep users because their applications are BETTER. Not because users have no choice but to keep using their applications, given the inability to save a file.

  • I recently came to the same realization about Gmail -- about how data portability just isn't there. But I decided to forget about keeping control of my data and I made the switch to Gmail anyway. Here's a full post on my rationale:

  • Hey, Kendra from here- thanks for the great post. Just wanted to jump into the conversation- here at Box we also believe that enabling control of your data is critical to member’s rights. We have many features that enable people to do whatever they want with their own data, including (easily!) taking it out of our system if they’re so inclined. (

    So as we watch businesses/ social networking sites take to the web as a platform for talking to their audience (customers), it is important that we be increasingly aware of what data they have access to and why. This comes up again and again in discussions around huge companies like Google- and the other companies that they own/run- because Google knows a lot about us, which is good for them and a bit scary for us. My data should be my data. I should be able to save it, send it, share it and have only those I choose have access to it. Total control of your data in the cloud, if you will- I like that Scott.

    Take good care.

  • As many others have pointed out, social networks are hypocritical because they rely on the data portability of email apps to grow their own networks, yet refuse to let that data back out.

  • Good points on the subject. In order for anything to become mainstream, users need to take interest and understand the concepts. The common public understands social networking at this point and that is why facebook and myspace have the success they do.

    I do find it interesting that you mentioned data portability without including a link to
    The more people involved in making this a success the better off the web will be for it. And, people will truly be able to own their web identities.

  • @Ken

    I agree that the notion of saving files will be abstracted away on the web -- but what replaces it needs to be at least as flexible. Imagine if Microsoft locked 0ffice files so they couldn't be opened in iWork. That's what Facebook has done. The notion of files won't go away until you have total unfettered control of your data in the cloud, regardless of where the data physically residesm

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