For the last couple of years I’ve been managing my to-do list with Zenbe Lists. It’s got a lot going for it: it’s simple, it’s free, it runs on my iPhone as well as on the web, it’s got a lovely interface, and it’s simple (did I mention that already?).
It has one big strike against it, though: it’s a zombie. It’s a staggering, stumbling, undead ghoul of a web service.
It’s the weirdest thing. I know companies go out of business all the time, but this has been a prolonged up-and-down drama that kept me on the hook far longer than it should have. I stuck with it through various long outages partly because I hoped someone would come along and buy it and partly because I couldn’t be bothered to move everything to some other app. We keep hearing that it’s cheap to start a software company these days. Zenbe is proof that it’s also cheap to keep them in an unsupported limbo state too. Somebody’s paying the electricity bill, but that’s about it. Nobody is responding to any complaints. The GetSatisfaction forum for Zenbe is a place where people bitch about the service and then trade recommendations for a replacement.
So I finally got the message and moved on to a service called Todoist. And let me tell you, I was happy to pay for the service. The app itself is very good, but not great, but beyond that, I’ve gotten a nice little lesson in economics. I help pay the bills at Todoist by sending them money. Zenbe, on the other hand, got their money from advertisers, and when the money ran thin, it was clear that they didn’t really care much about me.
Marco Arment of Instapaper fame has a lot to say about this. I heard him most recently on the Planet Money NPR program. From his point of view, one of the great things about paid-for apps is that they give him a direct relationship with his customers. Imagine that! Just like in the history books!
There’s nothing very surprising in this story, but I suspect we’re all going to have this lesson driven home over the next few years as all those free web service chickens come home to roost. What’s the phrase people use for this situation? If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. It felt downright healthy to pay someone directly for the good service I was receiving. And that’s bound to be a good thing for software developers. It’s proven to be a good thing for me, since I’ve already received excellent support from the staff at Todoist.