The danger of a free lunch

Closing Down - Last Day

Closing Down – Last Day by _4cryingoutloud

The imminent closure of popular blogging platform Posterous highlights one of the drawbacks of free online tools. Trusting any online service with your data or even your time in building a site means that it is important to be vigilant and well informed so you are not inconvenienced further down the track.

The development team behind Posterous has been acquired by Twitter, and Posterous is due to close down on April 30th.  This leaves many users looking for another site to host their blog and an easy way to migrate their data. Fortunately in this case there are a number of options for migrating a Posterous site into similar sites like WordPress or Tumblr.  Posterous users will surely miss the easy to use blogging service, but the minor inconvenience of migrating their site is a much better outcome than facing a task of manually exporting data, or worse, losing your data entirely.

In the online world, the theory that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ is clearly evident. It’s an important lesson that should be considered when evaluating the use of any online tools. Many of these services host large amounts of data and require constant maintenance, meaning that all free services still have the cost of providing server space and employing staff. The business models of most free online services tend to loosely fall into the following categories:

  • Building a strong user base and then being acquired by a larger company (as in the cases of Posterous & Instagram). This model probably makes a service more likely to be discontinued. Users can only hope that a service will be acquired and continued (like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram), rather than being acquired merely for the talent of the developers (like Twitter’s purchase of Posterous).
  • Making money by serving up advertising to users. Google, Twitter & Facebook are the best examples, and all three services analyse your data to serve up targeted ads. This has led to some backlash from users about invasions of privacy. However, those with a more reasonable view realise that advertising supports the service. My advice is this, if you use a free service (or even visit a free website) then advertising is a fact of life. The cost of a newspaper or magazine is subsidised by advertising, and the web is no different. Our personal data makes an attractive proposition for advertisers, and if that is a problem for you then it may be best to avoid these sites.
  •  The ‘freemium’ model, which offers premium paid services to power users and limits the features offered to free users (Evernote’s premium accounts and Dropbox’s paid storage upgrades are good examples. Google Apps also falls into this category). In some way this may be the best option for users and providers. Data tends to be better protected, paid users get important features and innovative new features are added as a way of enticing people to upgrade.
  • A fully paid model. One interesting new site using this model is Pinboard, a bookmarking site that is a paid service. The developer promises that this will provide a level of privacy and data protection not found in free services
  • No business model at all and no way to make income from a service. I’d advise you to avoid using any service like this, particularly if investing your time or data (read about the closure of Megaupload as a classic cautionary tale). 

When using any free service, it’s important to consider these models and the implications of storing your data with them. Check out a site like How do they make money? for a guide to the models of popular services. Always read the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy and explore the options for exporting your data before you invest a lot of time and energy into a site (this is doubly important if you are recommending your students use a service).

Every time you commit your data to a site you need to do some risk assessment and consider ways to reduce the risk. For example, if you use a service like Google Drive, Evernote or Dropbox then your data can also be synchronised back to your computer as well, so at least you have a local copy of the data. This is particularly important for files like photographs. Also consider using a tool like If This Then That  to automatically back up your data from one service to another.

Remember to also consider the type of data that you are uploading to online services. Do some research about a service to see if they have had privacy breaches in the past, and think about the implications of the data you upload being accessed by someone else. For example, if you want to use Evernote to record student data then make sure it is only stored as a local notebook on your computer, rather than being uploaded. It’s not as convenient, but it’s an important step in protecting data.

Online services provide an amazing level of convenience, letting us stay organised, share our lives and work together. This convenience does also require us to stay informed and consider our use of these tools. In this way you’ll ensure that you’ll never lose that important data that means so much to you.


Save quotes instantly with Citable

Highlight text, click the extension and save the quote

The online document editor and storage service Google Drive is a great way to keep research organised, and a new extension has recently made it even more powerful. Citable lets you highlight web text and send it automatically to a Google Spreadsheet.

Once you’ve installed Citable you can select text on any webpage, hit the shortcut button and choose where you want to store the quote. Citable will automatically fill in the date & time accessed, author and address of the page. You can also add tags to help keep your quotes organised.

The extension works in the Chrome browser and doesn’t require a login. However, you do need to give Citable access to your Google Drive account, but like all apps you can revoke access at any time. You can download any files created by Citable from your documents and edit the document manually at any time. 

Visit the Chrome web store to install Citable. If you need help getting started then here is our step by step guide to installing and using the Citable extension.

Integrated apps added to Google Drive

Google Drive has been adopted by many schools and educators as a powerful and flexible cloud based documents editor. The service (formerly known as Google Docs) is now even more useful as you can install apps to create and edit a range of documents.

While Google Drive has always replicated the Microsoft Office suite in being able to create spreadsheets, word processed documents and presentations, now users can also install apps like image editors, mind mapping software or even graphing calculators.

In order to see a full list of apps that integrate with Google Drive login to your Google Drive account. Once you are logged in select  Create> More> Get more apps. (See below)

Install apps from the Create menu

If you are using any browser other than Google Chrome you will get a message saying that you need to download and install Chrome to use these apps. I’ve been able to install and use several of the apps in Firefox, but you will probably find the services do work more reliably in Chrome.

Now you will see a list of all of the apps that integrate with Google Drive. To install an app hover over the icon and click +Install or +Add to Chrome. You will also be asked a series of confirmation questions regarding what the app can access. As always, read these messages carefully and don’t give an app access to your data if you are not comfortable with the level of access it is requesting.

Once the app is added to Google Drive you may notice that some of the icons of your files will change. This indicates that the file will open in the related app or you can create a new file using the Create>More option. If you’d like to uninstall any apps you can return to Google Drive and select Settings>Manage Apps (see below).

You can uninstall any apps from the Settings menu


If that all seems a bit confusing, we’ve put together a short video demonstrating how to install, use and uninstall apps to your Google Drive account (3.08 min).

With this addition Google Drive is certainly becoming an even more tempting alternative to Microsoft Office. To get you started, here are some of the integrated apps that we recommend:

Pixlr Editor – a powerful photo editor with a number of features found in high end software like Photoshop. The Pixlr Express app is also a good option for adding simple frames, filters, stamps and text.

Mindmeister– a very attractive mind mapping tool, with lovely graphics and some powerful export options

Floorplanner– a fun but powerful app to plan out rooms. Includes 3D furniture and displays floorplans in both 2D and 3D. Just make sure you draw in a floor first!

Floorplanner lets you design your ultimate room

Automate your Dropbox with Wappwolf

Wappwolf is a free service which connects with your Dropbox or Google Drive account and lets you set automated tasks. It has a number of useful features and is a handy way to automate many time consuming tasks such as file conversions or basic image editing. In particular it works very well when it comes to converting audio, e-book or picture files, which can then be saved back into your Dropbox folder, uploaded to Google Drive and Evernote or emailed automatically to an address you define. Because of the excellent integration with Dropbox these automations could be particularly useful for getting student work off an iPad or other mobile device.

Wappwolf works in similar fashion to If This Then That which we featured earlier this year. You can select a folder in your Dropbox that Wappwolf will watch. As soon as a new file is added to that folder the task you have defined will begin. There are a wide range of tasks that Wappwolf can complete. You can convert files, edit an image, turn a text file into a PDF or upload a picture to your Twitter or Facebook account. You don’t even need to have a computer running as all of the automation is done in the cloud.

As an example, you could set Wappwolf to watch a folder in your Dropbox and as soon as you add a picture to that folder it could be converted to black and white and then sent to Evernote. Or you could create an automation that automatically sends any picture you save in a folder to your Grandmother!  A free Wappwolf account lets you define up to 10 different automations.

Here are some of the automation options available:

For audio files: Convert to MP3, WAV or MP4

For picture files:  Stamp a logo on an image, Convert to black and white, Upload to Flickr

For documents: Convert to PDF, Convert ebook, Send to Kindle, Upload to Google Drive

An example action from Wappwolf. This action stamps a logo on to an image and saves it back to Dropbox.

There are many other options available for Dropbox and also options for Facebook, Google Drive or Box. The best way to understand the range of options is to explore Wappwolf’s features, so have a look at our guide to getting started and see how you can use Wappwolf to make you life easier.