What should users expect from the free services they depend on?
The fact that users are not paying a fee to use a service, doesn't mean that companies are not profiting from their use. The old saying goes that if you're not the one paying, then you are the product. Meanwhile, more and more we are becoming dependent upon the tools we choose. So, before we adopt new services, should we have some level of commitment to what will happen if the company no longer wants to support it?
At minimum, there should always be a way to get your data out of the system. Anything you put in should exportable for use in other services. Delicious offered a bookmark export utility. Google Reader lets you grab your OPML file to load into other readers. But what about other services? Blog platforms generally let you export all your blog posts, but that doesn't necessarily include images and other key metadata. If gmail or Yahoo Mail were shuttered, there's no easy way today to retrieve your email archive and load it into another email system.
Should companies commit to a plan to open source a service if they choose to no longer support it? That's a bigger decision and one that companies would not likely offer willingly. But if they want us to put our data into a service that may disappear down the road, perhaps it's reasonable to expect them to do so. In enterprise software, it's not uncommon for large clients to get companies (particularly early stage companies) to agree to an escrow provision, should the company go bankrupt. Under the b2c model, if a company is monetizing its audience, is it not reasonable to expect there to be a safety net in place should the company be unable or unwilling to provide the service?
Of course, any such clause would likely be unenforceable. But in an environment where a handful of large platform companies (Google, Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), Facebook (FB), Twitter) are becoming more deeply entwined into our workflow, a company might gain a strategic advantage in making this type of promise to its users. Just as Google claimed a "Do No Evil" mantra, perhaps there's an opportunity for one of these platforms to adopt a new "leave no user behind" mission statement. Perhaps before the next platform company kills one of its offerings (Hey Twitter - I'm looking at Tweetdeck), they should look to adopt this user-centric approach.