Since I last wrote about web applications, I’ve enlarged my portfolio. All of my spreadsheets (admittedly not that many) are now on EditGrid, the snappiest and least buggy of all the online spreadsheets, in my experience. I upgraded to the $9 Backpack subscription, which gives me up to 100 pages (and if I hit 100 pages, man, I have problems). I dumped AirSet in favor of 30 Boxes. I’ve also become the 30,000,002nd person to get hooked on Skype, if that counts as a web application.
Today as I was saving a Writeboard it occurred to me that for years before the word “Ajax” was coined, I’ve been using a comparable service, one that primed me to accept web applications as my personal information savior. It’s called Flexcar.
Flexcar is a car-sharing service. Here is how it works. Flexcar has over 100 cars scattered around Seattle, including about a dozen in our immediate area. You reserve a car on the Flexcar web site and unlock it with a smart card. When you’re done, lock it with the same card. If you need gas, there’s a fleet card in the car. That’s it.
You pay for Flexcar by the hour. For us, that’s $9; if you use the service a lot, the rate goes down. Nine bucks an hour? Sounds like highway robbery.
But here’s what you don’t pay for: gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs, or parking in the Flexcar spot. You do pay if you leave the dome light on and the car needs a jump start; I did that once. You also pay for parking while you have the car out, of course, and if you get a parking ticket (duh). If you fail to return the car on time, you pay the next person’s cab fare.
You can see where I’m going with this. Buying your own car is like buying MS Office. There’s a large upfront fee and ongoing maintenance fees. You have to insure the car or back up the Word documents. On the upside, it’s somewhat more likely to be there when you need it, and you’re not giving some company access to all of your driving habits (or spreadsheets).
When I’ve explained Flexcar to people, I’ve sometimes heard the response, “You mean the car might not be there when I need it?” expressed in the exact tone of voice people use when they say, “Store my documents online? What if I’m not online?” Like Flexcar, Writely (which I’m using right now, just for fun) could change its software or its terms of service on me, and all I could do is complain to Google. (Now serving #3923804. Your estimated wait time is three geological ages.)
Point is, both approaches make sense. It depends on your situation. If you live near ten Flexcars, don’t have a daily commute, and parking in your neighborhood is tight, dump your car and use Flexcar. If you live ten miles from the nearest Flexcar or would be terrified to let the Flexcar corporation know how often you go to Taco Bell, forget it.
For me, Flexcar and web apps are the obvious call. I’m always near a Flexcar and a humming wireless connection. And I’m lucky enough that if my connection does go down, nothing I do is so important that it can’t wait until the problem is sorted out. I’m just a plain old infant heart surgeon.