Xmarks browser sync tosses in towel

Browsers' built-in sync, failure to make money lead to demise

The Xmarks browser bookmark sync service will pull the plug in early 2011, the firm's co-founder announced Monday, citing competition from Mozilla and Google.

The company supported Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and was one of the few to sync bookmarks between different browsers.

Todd Agulnick, who in 2006 founded what was originally called Foxmarks with Mitch Kapor of Lotus fame, also said that his company couldn't come up with a way to turn a profit from its free sync service.

"For four years we have offered the synchronization service for no charge, predicated on the hypothesis that a business model would emerge to support the free service," Agulnick said in a lengthy blog post. "With that investment thesis thwarted, there is no way to pay expenses, primarily salary and hosting costs. Without the resources to keep the service going, we must shut it down."

Xmarks will stop synchronizing users' data on Jan. 10, 2011, three months and two weeks from Monday.

Agulnick said the company explored several ways to monetize the information it acquired from its two million users -- creating a search engine from the sites users bookmarked, enhancing Google's results or even selling ads to ranked sites -- but none panned out.

Xmarks also considered moving to a "freemium" model, where some features would be given away in the hope that enough users would pony up for a more robust premium service. "But the prospects there are grim too: With the emergence of competent sync features built into Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, it's hard to see users paying for a service that they can now get for free," said Agulnick.

Mozilla has offered a synchronization service since 2007 through a Firefox add-on, but has baked sync into Firefox 4, the next major upgrade slated to ship later this year.

Google's Chrome and Opera Software's Opera have had integrated sync since 2008.

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) and Apple's Safari lack built-in sync, the former's bookmarks can be synchronized with other copies of IE using the free Windows Live Essentials. Safari users can sync to other machines running the browser via Mobile Me, Apple's $99 per year service.

Xmarks remains a popular Firefox add-on. As of Monday, it was the 25th-most-downloaded add-on in the browser's extensions library.

Users bemoaned Xmarks' death in comments added to Agulnick's blog, with many piping up that they would have paid for the sync service, if only someone had asked.

"I actually have to say 'why didn't you say anything sooner?' I too would have paid for this." said a user identified only as "Josh."

"I would have easily paid money for Xmarks if someone asked," added someone labeled "Sean."

Xmarks had an answer for those people.

"Our research showed not enough people would be interested in a premium service, especially when there are free alternatives available, some built right into the browser," a shutdown FAQ stated. "We didn't want to charge a few people, then turn around a few months later and shut down anyway."

After the service is shuttered, Xmarks promised that it will wipe its servers. The company also said it would not sell any of its data.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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