After Google I/O, I found myself using Hangouts more than iMessage, which struck me as odd. I’m firmly ensconced in the Apple ecosystem. Why, then, am I suddenly using a competitor’s messaging client more than the one that comes baked into all of my devices?
As I pondered that, a bigger question started to take shape. I’ve used a lot of services over the years. Some of them rose to the top as the best of breed in their category, whether it be social networking, music, whatever. But more often than not, I’ve used two or more services to accomplish the same task because each service offered its own strengths in the category. The question became: how many services do I regularly use that duplicate functionality?
Take photos for example. I like Flickr for pictures I put effort into (which happens less frequently these days). I use Instagram for quick shots that I want my friends to see. And I can easily cross post from Instagram to Facebook and Tumblr so my family and other friends can see them. But I also like sharing to App.net occasionally, which uses that service’s storage. And Dropbox is looking like an increasingly viable competitor to Photo Streams. Oh right! Then there’s Photo Streams.
So, I made a list. And as the list grew–and grow it did–I started to get angry. All of the overlap, all of the scattered data–MY scattered data–is mind boggling. Here’s the list. In it, I’ve included all of the services in each category that I’ve used over the last few years.
- Photo Stream
- iTunes Match
- iTunes Store
- Amazon Streaming
- Google Drive
- Drafts Sync
- Google Docs
- Google Talk/Hangouts
- Google Maps
- Apple Maps
- Google Hangouts
- Google Calendar
- Wolfram Alpha
- Duck Duck Go
In many cases, I’ll never be able to have one solution, one app to rule them all. But why?
Using my photo sharing example from above, the answer is pretty clear. It comes down to staying in touch with the people I care about. And because those folks also share this problem of fragmentation, there’s no one way for me to stay in touch with all of them. We’ve been split into factions by service providers. The Facebookers. The Tumblrs. The Tweeters. The AppDotNetters.
This is intensely frustrating to me. Looking at the list above, I realize my online life is too cluttered. I’d like to simplify things. But the decision to simplify by cutting out one service in favor of another often means cutting out a conversation that includes family and/or friends–people I care about. People I want to communicate and share with. Simplicity vs. family or friends is a pretty sad corner to be backed into.
I know I’m not alone in my want to stay connected. Dan Benjamin left Instagram after their sell-out to Facebook, but he returned because he was “tired of missing out on what some of my Instagram-only friends are doing.” I’ve sorta left Twitter a couple of times, but ultimately, I missed a handful of the voices that had become familiar. And those voices were never going to be available in my App.net stream, not only because those people will never jump ship, but also because Twitter’s terms of service prevent people from extracting value from the service (e.g., piping streams from Twitter to another site, combining a Twitter feed with a feed from another service like Facebook or App.net, etc.). And Twitter’s onerous TOS isn’t an anomaly.
The Verge published an article after Google I/O about the increasingly fragmented state of messaging, and the future is pretty bleak. Instead of moving toward interoperability, service providers are moving farther apart without giving a damn about what this means for their customers. They want to lock you in, and if they’re successful, you’ll bring your friends and family with you. Yay, more customers. But they’ve now convinced all of you to use n+1 services (because, as I mentioned, not everyone likes to jump ship), which complicates your life, your friends’ lives, and probably the lives of other people they stay in contact with on the web. That service providers show a complete disregard for the implications of their actions is, to me, almost a bigger slap in the face than the selfishness of trying to achieve lock-in.
I think what bothers me most is that I don’t have a solution to this problem. In a lot of situations, I could make life pretty simple by using Google’s services for just about everything, which would be fine if Google didn’t come off as the creepiest company in existence right now. I’d rather rely on Apple for most things, but they suck–and always have sucked–at online services. I doubt that will ever change.
We can’t count on companies to act responsibly, and expecting one of them to step up as a hero to successfully unify our online lives is silly. Which leaves one choice if you’re bent on simplicity: whose voices can you live without? Who are you comfortable cutting out of your online life? Since I’m not comfortable answering that question—and you probably aren’t, either—things will have to continue to be messy.