It's amazing when you put things in the cloud and they just work. My email is in the cloud, and it works. A lot of my documents are in the cloud, and it works. The hiccups – if there are any — are usually rather small. Maybe an outage for a few hours that is quick to recover.
A few years ago, I was looking for an online solution to put my notes on. You know, small notes, little todo lists, no formatting, just text-based stuff. The kind of stuff you would usually put on Post-it notes and stick them to your monitor. That was before Apple introduced iCloud and had their notes working in that ecosystem.
That's when I found Simplenote. It comes with an iOS client, it has a web interface, and there are several clients on the Mac that work really well. Sorry, make that used to work really well. My client of choice is nvalt, a fork of Notational Velocity, Super simple notes editing, super fast and simple search, exactly what I was looking for in a notes client. And you can set it to save your notes locally as text files, which makes it really easy to integrate them into your operating system. Now spotlight also finds them. Oh, and did I mention Dropbox sync? You get the picture. Life is awesome!
I was so impressed with it, that I quickly signed up for a paid account.
A couple of weeks ago things began to crumble. First a few hiccups when syncing, then things got progressively worse until finally the worst happened: Simplenote syncing broke. Okay, temporary move to the web interface, right? That should be fine. No, it's not - lots of notes are duplicated and things are still crazy and pretty much unusable, it's a huge mess. The Simplenote team claims, this is down to Amazon Web Services having an issue, and in the case of nvalt, there also seems to be the Google cloud component involved, that has issues on the server side too. When it rains it pours.
My communication with Simplenote's premium support (the one for paying customers) so far resulted in excuses. And I'm stuck. I can't use nvalt because sync is very choppy. I can't use the Simplenote web interface as that's broken for me too. I'm stuck because I relied on a service that used to be simple and reliable but has gone bad because .. well, why has it gone bad?
I'm not sure what to make of all of this. On the one hand, Simplenote is basically a free service and free services need to be financed some way. This is why I quickly signed up for the paid account. I figured that such a great service needs to be paid for, so it stays around as long as possible and with as high quality as possible. Unfortunately it seems, that the service was built on a pretty unstable foundation.
On the other hand, can we fault the Simplenote team for trying to run this service as cost-effective as possible?
I think we can. If you offer a service, even if it's a free one, there will be expectations and it's your job to manage those. Especially, if that service runs flawlessly for years. Great performance creates great expectations. I'm in a good position though. Having lived in this online world long enough and on both sides of the fence, as a customer and as a service provider, I know to manage my own expectations. Which is why I did pay for the service in the first place. Others won't have the experience that I have, so as soon as they start paying for a service, the picture changes. And their expectations will be higher than they should be.
I'm sure the Simplenote issues could have been avoided if the team had set everything up with the required redundancy. And as a paying customer who doesn't have an IT background, this would be my expectation.
What can we learn from this experience? By all means, build your own redundancy! Whenever there is a free online service, I need to make sure to have that data around in some other way. My Google docs get backed up locally once an hour (using CloudPull). I did set up Simplenote to synchronize its data with Dropbox. You need to have a safety net if you put things in the cloud. I even do a local backup of my Dropbox.
The cloud is great when it works, be prepared for when it doesn't.