The Ugly Backside of Online Backup

I was just showing off my new Gmail/Remember the Milk marriage, which is truly a cool tool and worth checking out, to my slightly less new wife. Her response was: but it’s online. How can I use it if I’m offline?

I slapped her about verbally, of course, because you can’t be doing with that kind of defeatist talk at Loose Wire HQ, but she’s actually right: The great Achilles Heel of online is that it’s, well, online.

A shining, and sobering example of this problem is online backup. Of all the online backup tools that looked the most serious, Omnidrive was ahead of a big pack. Until recently. This from Webware: 

We got an e-mail earlier today from a Webware reader and Omnidrive user who told us the online storage service has been out since early this morning. We sleuthed around a little and tried to get in touch with Omnidrive CEO Nik Cubrilovic, whose personal blog is also down, although we’ve heard nothing back yet. As of publishing this, the service is still down.

That’s still true. I don’t have stuff stored there, but I feel for the guys who do. The problem with asking consumers to entrust their stuff to you is that it’s about trust: Lose it and you’re lost forever.

My blog has become a minor Mecca (can you have minor Meccas?) for those disenchanged with Xdrive since it was bought by AOL, so much so that somone claiming to be Robert Blatt of AOL posted a comment yesterday trying to repair some of the damage and get people back to the service.

His comments reflect a rare honesty from AOL about the size of the problem (whenever someone corporate uses the word “challenges” you need to replace it with something very much stronger. It’s the corporate equivalent of self-flagellation and an acknowledgement of having screwed up big time):

First of all, a disclaimer, not only do I work for AOL but I am responsible for both the Xdrive and BlueString products.

With that said, over the last year we have made tremendous efforts to improve the reliability and performance of the underlying infrastructure that drives both Xdrive and BlueString. We use Keynote monitoring 24X7 to measure consumers’ ability to login, upload, and access their online assets. Over the last six months these numbers have consistently been above 99% availability. If consumers who use this blog are continuing to have problems please post so that we can understand and rectify.

With respect to customer support, we both understand and agree with the challenges that people have been having. We have recently increased our focus and our resources to address this issue. Changes like this always take a bit of time but I am confident that we will have the same kind of success that we have had in improving the product.

Finally, look for a new, easier to use interface for Xdrive during the first quarter of 2008. We are working hard to erase the boundary that currently exists for consumers between their desktop and the internet.

I’m sure Robert doesn’t need to be told that in the world of online storage it’s a case of once bitten, twice you’re far, far away and would only be lured back by the promise of vestal virgins and free Porsches. Would you ever entrust something as valuable as your backups to someone who lost them the first time around?

The rule of thumb of online backup is, sadly: Think of it as a sort of luxury. Not as something you can rely on. Because of that, I can’t imagine why someone would pay for it.

An Advertising Conundrum

I guessed this would happen eventually: through one of the advertising aggregators I use for this blog a service I’ve been critical of has submitted an ad. Do I accept it?

Advertising aggregators provide a service to companies by letting them place banner and other web ads on participating blogs. I’ve been trying FeedBurner, for example, which puts ads on my blog and at the bottom of blog postings. They’re pretty obviously ads, since they’re all snazzy and jazzed up, and they help to defray (I love using the word ‘defray’) the costs of running the blog. Not everyone likes having to put up with ads, but we’re not running a charity here.

Anyway, Xdrive, an online storage service now owned by AOL, has just submitted an ad. I knew this might happen; I’ve seen their ad appear on other blogs using the FeedBurner service. But this blog has been something of a thorn in the side of Xdrive, ever since I started writing about some user complaints about a year ago (Google “xdrive” and a Loose Wire post appears among the first 10 results. Google “xdrive problems”  and it’s top.) And things don’t seem to have gotten any better: two readers complained only last week about the service.

My first reaction was to decline the ad, something I’ve only done once before with a service that was too unclear about what it offered to pass muster (I love saying ‘muster’ too.) Why should I allow an ad for a service that may not be up to scratch? But then cooler heads prevailed. Declining the Xdrive ad would imply I had somehow endorsed the ads I had approved to run. While I’ll try not to allow ads that appear to be questionable, I don’t think readers are going to assume that every product advertised on this blog is one I suggest they go out and buy. Or do you?

Two other issues raise their heads: Should I alert AOL that they’re running an ad on a blog that has been critical of the service that they’re advertising? Or is it their lookout? (Perhaps they know this already and are trying to redress the balance. Or they see criticism as part of the conversation.)

Another: Should I make clearer what my policy is on advertising so readers are not confused? And if so, where should I put it? And what should it say? That’s something I’m going to work on, and of course something I’d be delighted to take input on from readers. I’m sure I’m not the first blogger to face this issue. The debate about balancing the needs of advertisers with the needs of a free and objective press is not a new one, and not one that, to my knowledge, has ever been entirely resolved. Maybe bloggers can have a shot at it.

Shrines to Frustration

It’s depressing that two gripes I’ve posted, both at least a year old, continue to get comments which push both posts to the top of the search engines. My grumbles about accessing Xdrive, an online storage service bought by AOL, comes out top if you search for xdrive problems on Google. Search for cancel napster and my post about how hard it was to cancel the service comes as the next result below a couple of official Napster sites. Both posts got more comments in the last few hours.

I’m not particularly proud about this; I’ve already written a column about Napster’s poor cancellation process, and bad press doesn’t seem to bother either company. (Although maybe AOL might start changing its practice after Randall Stross’ piece in the NYT about how customer service reps are instructed to try more or less every trick before complying with customer requests to cancel their account.

Wearing my WSJ.com hat, I’ve talked to both AOL and Napster about these problems and it seems in both cases neither problem has been fixed. If they had, why would people keep posting horror stories? Somehow I doubt these two cases are exceptional. I imagine there must be hundreds of companies out there where single blog posts have become shrines to customer frustration. Fortunately in both cases readers have added useful advice in the comments so it’s not all just blowing off steam. But why aren’t big companies more proactive about these things by monitoring search results and reaching out to websites or blogs that attract this kind of traffic?

Xdrive Responds: Patience, Please

Further to several comments from readers about problems with Xdrive, the online storage service recently bought by AOL, I sought comment from their PR. Here, somewhat belatedly, is what they have to say:

Recently, Xdrive began a system upgrade designed to improve the quality and overall performance of the Xdrive experience. When complete, these upgrades will greatly improve the overall Xdrive experience which will result in unparalleled service and features. Unfortunately, during this process, some of our customers have experienced difficulty while using Xdrive’s services. Xdrive is aware of these issues and is working diligently to resolve them in a timely manner. We ask for our subscriber’s continued patience. For any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact customer support either by email at support@xdrive.com or via phone at 866-GO-Xdrive. –Jose Martinez, Xdrive Customer Support Manager.

These upgrades should be finished any day now, Xdrive says. This comment doesn’t differ hugely from their previous one of more than two months ago, but it’s at least something. One can’t help wondering, though, whether the damage is already done. Why stick with an online storage service that offers such unreliable service for nearly three months? Isn’t the whole point of online backup to be, well, a backup?

Problems at Xdrive?

I hear from a reader that Xdrive, the online storage service recently bought by AOL, is not performing well:

Xdrive has been basically non-functional for at least the last 4 days, and a customer service email says they have no idea when their “major upgrade” will be fixed.

As I’ve recommended Xdrive in the past, I’m slightly perturbed. Certainly I’m not able to access my account at the time of writing:

Xdrive

What gives, AOL?

[Update a few hours later: I’m now able to access my account.]