Free web platform tools . . . but at what cost?

No-charge platforms are great for business and personal use, until they go wrong, change or disappear
Tool kit: media organisations can now post stories straight to Facebook Instant Articles

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Recent changes in the mysterious Facebook algorithm that have deprioritised posts by pages and brands in favour of posts by actual human beings sparked despair among marketers who watched, powerless, as their page views and shares fell sharply.

Meanwhile, big news publications have begun to experiment with Facebook’s Instant Articles, publishing straight to the platform rather than posting links to their own websites, raising questions about the risks of ceding control to a platform with its own priorities and an opaque algorithm.

Both of these tales tell us much about the necessity and wisdom of relying on third-party tools, particularly free ones. As the big brands relying on Facebook to deliver traffic are discovering, free tools can come with a sting in the tail.

Third-party tools are the backbone of work. Right now, I am writing this at my desk, using a copy of Word 2016, saving revisions to my computer’s hard drive and listening to music stored on my networked hard drive via my Sonos speakers, which is all very old-school. However, I could take my Android tablet down to my local coffee shop and finish writing this column there.

To do that, I would be relying on third-party services: OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, where I would save a version of this column; then Office Online, where I would pick up and carry on writing and editing this piece. While I am at the coffee shop, I could also fire up the Spotify app and use that to access my music via any number of online services — such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Google Play, SoundCloud, Apple Music, Groove — and carry on listening to David Bowie’s masterful final album, Blackstar, as I am now doing at home.

I would also be relying on the WiFi at my coffee shop: I would be trusting that it is fast enough and has sufficient bandwidth for me to be able to use those services and, crucially, I would be trusting that it is secure.

Free tools drive businesses: Slack, the chat tool of the moment, has a free tier that is fine for many of the groovy start-ups that use it. Google Docs powers collaborative working and goodness knows how many small business websites are built on WordPress. Meanwhile, Amazon’s AWS cloud computing service, both the free tiers and the more comprehensive paid-for iterations, provides the back end for untold millions of organisations’ websites.

Free tools can be great, says Thomas Pepper, a user experience designer at Parker Software, which provides online marketing and customer relationship management tools. “Many free tools are useful and if that’s not the case, there’s nothing lost other than a day or two trying something that was free,” he says.

However, things can go wrong with free tools: the terms and how they work can change and they can simply vanish. Evernote, the venerable note-taking app, recently infuriated its users by making substantial changes to its free version, including restricting syncing to just two devices. That has left people scrabbling around for alternatives, losing time as they research another tool. Or it has meant a sudden unexpected cost for businesses that bite the bullet and pay to avoid the grief of moving to another platform.

Pepper wonders how many users of a free service such as Evernote will pay for an upgrade. “Most of us just keep an eye on our usage to make sure we remain within the limits,” he says. He points out that there is a downside for the provider of the service. “There’s a degree of risk in relying on this kind of customer base to build profits. This is particularly true when you’re operating a business model where you’re generating less money upfront.”

It is frustrating enough when something you rely on changes its terms, but it is even more infuriating when a product is discontinued without warning. Misty-eyed geeks recall the ahead-of-its-time social bookmarking service Delicious, which Yahoo neglected when it bought it in 2005. And Google Reader, an RSS aggregator, was similarly beloved by geeks for its user-friendliness, but was discontinued by Google in 2013.

Deciding to use third-party tools should be about how your time is best spent, says Adam Sager, the founder and chief executive of Canary, a New York-based company that makes a consumer security camera. Sager says his team uses several third-party services. “We asked ourselves: is there a unique value proposition if we build it ourselves,” he says. Canary uses AWS for its back end, says Sager, adding: “Having the best cloud infrastructure is not our value proposition.”

Where functions are core to its product, Canary chose to build its own services. The Canary camera learns how your family comes and goes in the house and becomes more responsive and useful as you use it. That, says Sager, is a fundamental part of the product and so the company built its own deep-learning platform. “That’s available as a [third-party] service, but they’re very generic and their usefulness only goes so far,” he says. “We have a unique information set, so we decided to build that ourselves.”

The Canary security camera

The Canary team also built the camera itself rather than sourcing it from a third-party manufacturer. “That means we have everything from the image drivers to the motion sensor: we wanted the best product on the market and so rather than relying on others, we designed and built it from scratch,” Sager adds.

When it comes to third-party tools, make sure you apply the what-could-possibly-go-wrong test. Sager explains how his team was considering using a start-up’s analytics product but “found a number of gaps in it”. “The product team was pushing for it, so we approached them about the gaps and said ‘once you fill those, we will use you’. They did and we’re now using the platform,” he says.

Failing to ask what could possibly go wrong may well lie at the heart of the problems marketers are having with Facebook. It is a question worth asking yourself when you consider using someone else’s tool — even if it is just considering the possibility of the coffee shop WiFi going down. I stayed home to write this column after all.

Nasa fires the imagination while a camera app keeps the hand steady

Exploding Kittens

iOS, £1.49; Android, £1.69. In-app purchases

First, an anti-productivity app. This is the virtual iteration of last year’s hottest Kickstarter campaign, a card game that beat its modest funding goal of $10,000 within eight minutes, eventually raising $8.7m. The game, which is simple to play but requires fiendish strategising, translates well into an app. Its charm is the design and the writing (you can defuse an exploding kitten card with a catnip sandwich card, for example). You either play against friends or against strangers online — there is no option to challenge the machine, which is annoying. And in-app purchases for expansion decks and new avatars feel opportunistic in a paid app. However, this is a charmer and a lot of fun.

Open Camera

Android, free

I really like this open-source camera app. It offers very granular control over all kinds of settings, from quality to date stamping and geotagging, and offers a couple of neat tricks, including the ability to use your voice or a noise to trigger firing the shutter (you could whistle, or say “cheese”, for example).

Of course, no app will improve the quality of images from dodgy hardware or from a talent-deficient user, but this, with helpful features including a choice of framing guides and a tool to make sure you are holding the phone level, should improve your results. Do chuck the developer a few pennies via his donation app, found on the Google Play store, to support its further development.

Nasa

iOS, Apple TV, Android, Kindle Fire, free

I absolutely love this app, which offers plenty of educational content for kids and masses of ways to while away time if, say, you are waiting for a plane. Check the schedule of the International Space Station to see if it will be visible from whichever far-from-home city you are in tonight, learn about the Nasa missions to gather data for climate scientists or just enjoy the stunning range of images and videos shared by the space agency that range from historical shots of early space missions to photos from deep space. This is how science communication and engagement should be done. This app is a delight to lose yourself in.

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