We are losing control of our data in the mobile age

Apps have never been more accessible, powerful, or affordable. But with the shift to mobile, they have also never been more incompatible, often locking our work, play, and precious moments in sandboxes surrounded by wide, deep moats of proprietary file types or a simple lack of an export option.

Take Evernote, for example. The Mac app has an export option, but I know of only a couple apps (like the Mac version of Together, but not iOS) that could do anything with your data. The iOS apps have no such option, and I haven’t seen any competitors that offer their own import. Note: there are plenty of apps that build on top of Evernote. That’s different from a competitor that moves all your data away.

Or look at the export option at Facebook, a company that years ago went “mobile first”. You can’t export anything on mobile. But with an old ‘n busted computer, you can download most of your data and then… do what with it? Can you import your < 140 character posts into Twitter? How about Tumblr? Is there a Facebook competitor, or even an app for regular people, that can do anything with this data?

Call it what you want—a technical oversight, lock-in by design, or something more generous or suspicious—but I believe it will become a real problem. Some of you reading this on a Mac or PC might not understand my concern, but think about it this way: in the past decade, Apple sold 125 million Macs, but nearly one billion iOS devices. Adults are turning to Macs and PCs less and less these days, and their kids have a good chance of growing up exclusively on iOS or Android. For many of them, the very idea of your data being your data could be as foreign as the idea of sharing your location and what’s going on around you on a public, government-indexed website was to anyone old enough to remember the original 80’s.

Traditional computers grew up with at least some semblance of a culture of data portability. Mobile devices, by comparison, don’t seem to share any such culture. Companies come and go, app and service prices are often far too low to create anything sustainable, and our data could very well evaporate with the next company we trust. A handful of competing standards is better than nothing. But nothing is about all we have right now, especially for the billions who already are, or soon will be, mobile.

I’m not a devleoper, I don’t have a deep architectural or cultural solution. Standard, portable formats (PDF, txt, arguably even Word) generally worked for the first age of computing, but they aren’t even an afterthought for the mobile generation. When Instagram and Evernote shutter their doors some day, what do we do when our data shutters with them?