When services die: A survivor's guide

Here's a wireless phone that's big, clunky, and never really worked indoors. Now it won't work outdoors either, because the service it connects to has gone dark--except for "heavy industry and government customers." It's the Iridium satellite phone, harbinger of a trend for the new millennium: the essential service that disappears, usually at the very moment you begin to depend on it.

The list of such services is long and getting longer, and it increasingly affects people who would never give a thought to making calls via outer space. Revenue-starved Internet service providers, particularly those offering DSL connections, are pulling up stakes and slinking out of town. Companies that once trumpeted free Internet access are charging fees, curtailing their offerings, or calling it quits altogether.

Disappearing Acts

Two free web storage sites, Visto Corp.'s Netdrive.com and Critical Path Inc.'s Docspace.com, were acquired by firms that target the corporate marketplace, forcing free-riding users to find somewhere else to stash their data. Application service providers HotOffice, Pandesic LLC, and Red Gorilla Inc. all passed away last year, leaving customers scrambling for alternatives. Come to think of it, even California's deregulated electricity industry can't reliably keep Silicon Valley lit and running 24 hours a day.

This is the dirty little secret nobody bothers to mention when promoting the concept of putting thin clients on the desktop and data and applications out on the Web. If you're going to rely on Web services, everything about them--from uptime to connectivity to longevity--had better be dependable. Since that's a tall order, make sure you have an exit strategy before you sign up.

A friend who happened to discover that her ISP was about to go broke contacted its DSL partner for help. The response from "customer care": Contact the failing ISP. But that company wasn't even answering its phone. She survived this nightmare by getting a second provider on another phone line rather than counting on a dying company for her connection and e-mail.

So if you can't live without e-mail, think about getting your own domain and being prepared to move it at a moment's notice. If you must have high-speed access to the Web, buy it from somebody who's likely to be around for a while. Switching Web and mail hosts can be done in a relative hurry; installation backlogs mean that changing the provenance of the wire that comes into your office can take a lot longer.

Asking The Tough Questions

Outsource with care. If you're running your office on Web-based software, consider how you'll cope if your high-speed connection quits or the company that hosts your applications suddenly goes under. What if you lost all access to your business data, along with all the applications you use to manipulate it? Your would-be provider had better have a very good answer, one that might involve regularly delivering physical backups such as CD-ROMs to you in a format that standard programs can read.

Free services may be particularly flaky, and doubtless more will fail. When I finally decided to use an online backup service, I picked Connected.com in part because it charges for its services, giving me a sense that it might have an actual business model that could keep it around for a while. The company says it stores data at two separate facilities, so it can withstand a disaster at one of them. But since no enterprise can promise eternal existence, I fear a repossessor more than an explosion. You can bet I'll back up crucial files on local media just in case.

Aggressively monitoring service providers can also save you money. I learned that back in the early days of the Net, when my very first ISP went belly- up only a month or two after I paid for a year's service in advance. Fortunately, when intermittent outages became daily ones and I heard rumblings about its imminent demise, I managed to cancel my service and get a refund--just a few days before that long-gone outfit closed its doors forever.

Call me Mr. Lucky.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is a cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on public television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.

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