Much has been said over the demise of Google Reader and what it should mean to users. A popular position advocated by many tech bloggers is that you should pay for services rather than trust your data to companies offering services for free. They argue that paying for services will give you more control over your data in the event that a free service closes its doors. This position is partially correct, but following this advice entirely will needlessly cost you time and money.1
There are two types of free services: open (those where your data can be exported to other services) and closed (those that aren't open). Open services include most free email services, such as Gmail, blog services like Tumblr, and even Google Reader. Each of these services allow users to take their data and move it to other services whenever they like. I can download all of my Gmail and move it to my own hosted email, for example. I can move Virtual Pants from Tumblr to WordPress if I like. And, as many people are figuring out right now, you can take your RSS subscriptions from Google Reader and import them into another RSS reader.
Closed services include social networks, like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. These services don't allow you to take your data somewhere else. Even if they allow you to download your data, like Twitter, that data can't be easily transferred to another similar service. I can't download my tweets and import them into Google+, for example.
It makes sense to avoid closed free services as much as possible. Your data belongs to them, and they offer you little control. But there is little risk to using open free services, which can save you time and money. Open free services often offer better features and a superior overall experience to paid counterparts. For example, Gmail arguably offers the best search and spam filtering in the business. Google provides plenty of storage, a top notch web interface, two-factor authentication, and apps on all major platforms, for free. And you have the same control over your data as with paid services.
A paid email service is going to cost you money, take more time to set up and configure, and likely won't offer as many features. You'll be paying for less, all for the sake of controlling your data.
What happens when the sky comes crashing down and Google decides to shut down Gmail? You still own and control your data. Anyone can download their Gmail to local storage and easily import their email to another provider. At worst, you would need to change your email address.2 And the entire time between now and Gmail's demise, you will have been paying for an inferior email service.
1. The buzz over Google Reader isn't about privacy, it's about the shut down of the service and control over your data. Opting out of ad-based sytems that use your data to generate revenue is a perfectly valid reason to pay for services that respect your privacy. If this is your primary concern with free services, you can probably stop reading now.
2. That's assuming Google decides to shut down one of their most popular services. Gmail has been around since 2004 and has steadily grown and improved each year. Take Hotmail as an example. It's been around for 16 years and nobody has been forced to change their @hotmail address.
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Virtual Pants is a column that provides commentary and unique insight on the latest technology news. You will find viewpoints there that aren't expressed by others in the tech blogosphere.