Should the demise of Google Reader teach us a lesson?

Several years ago, I was a loyal user of a software product called Ecco Pro. Ecco was -- is, actually, since there's still an active user base -- a highly sophisticated personal information system. I used it not only to store my contacts and schedule, but to track the 30-odd reviews I was responsible for each month -- who was writing them, when they were due, how much I was paying for them and where they were in the editing/production cycle. I depended on that application to keep me sane.

So when Ecco Pro was sold to another company that, in 1997, discontinued it, I was very disturbed. How could they let an important product like that go?

But I kept using it. For another 10 years.

Which is the difference between old-fashioned local clients like Ecco and many of the current cloud applications we are coming to favor, such as, oh, say, Google Reader. Or iGoogle. You know -- the ones that are going to disappear because the company that produces them decides they are no longer important?

Now, I really like cloud applications and I work with a lot of them. I currently use three laptops on a regular basis -- one for work, one for personal tasks and one when I need to travel -- not to mention a smartphone. It makes my life a whole lot simpler if I can have my applications and my documents available to me on all three without that whole process of manually syncing or carrying around storage media that I used to contend with.

But I have to admit that the idea of having an application you depend on available as long as you need it -- no matter what its vendor decides to do about it -- is also a lot more convenient than wondering on a daily basis whether a rug is about to get pulled out from under you. And I've experienced several moving rugs over the past couple of years, including a desktop app (iGoogle), a cloud storage service (Zumodrive) and a blogging site (Posterous).

I've been thinking more about this especially now that Microsoft is trying (at least, in the case of its new version of Office) to move its customers from the more traditional one-price-and-it's-yours type of purchase to a subscription service. If, in five years, Microsoft decides to stop selling its Office suite, where will the subscribers go?

Of course, whenever a product goes away, it's usually possible to find some sort of substitute. And there are several substitutes for Google Reader, such as Feedly, The Old Reader and NewsBlur.

But each time this happens, I start to wonder what we've traded off for the convenience of working in the cloud -- and how firm a surface that cloud really is to stand on.

[Note: A petition to keep Google Reader running has been put up on; as of 11:45 AM Eastern Time today (March 14th) it had garnered nearly 53 thousand signatures.]

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