It's an annoying and disappointing moment when you discover that one of your favourite online services -- possibly one that you rely on every day -- is shutting down. That's a pain, but you don't have to just accept it. Here's how you can find a replacement that doesn't suck.
When I discovered that Wunderkit, a service that we've mentioned before and that I use all the time was closing up shop, I was heartbroken. I understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn't make it suck less. Many of you felt the same way when Google announced it was shutting down iGoogle.
Webapps come and go, and we learn to live with the disappointment, but that doesn't mean you have to take it lying down. For every app you use, there's an alternative out there that would love your business. In this post, we're going to show you how to find them.
Step One: Grab Your Data And Prepare For Disappointment
When you learn that a service is shutting down, the first thing you should do is gather everything you've put into it. Some companies do a solid job at making your data portable, including Google or Facebook. Others announce they're closing first, and then say they'll make your data available to you before they shut down. If you can export your data, do it sooner rather than later. You don't want to get caught up in a mad rush to get your photos before your favourite image sharing service shuts down (the way I was when PicPlz closed its doors a few months back.)
You don't have to wait for the powers that be to export your data. We've shown you how to grab your data when a webapp shuts down and how to prevent it from getting too locked up in the future. The best protection against unexpected shutdowns is to diversify among multiple services and keep local copies of everything you send to the web. Check if a service allows you to export your data before you get invested. For now though, download what you can in whatever commonly used file formats areon offer.
Step Two: Look for Obvious Alternatives
Once you have your data, check for obvious alternatives you may not have tried. For example, if it's a Google service that is shutting down, odds are there's a Microsoft or Yahoo competitor available.
Often, your best bet is to start looking around at the big names to avoid getting stuck in the same situation again. Supporting the underdog can feel good, but give some real thought towards whether your support is more important than the time and effort it takes to move to a new service. Sometimes picking the market leader is a good option not because they're necessarily better, but because they'll be around the longest. For example, when PicPlz shut down, I could have moved to a number of other alternatives, but I eventually caved and went with Instagram, the dominant option. Part of it was because my friends were using it, but part of it was that I didn't want to deal with switching services a second time.
Step Three: Talk To Other Unhappy Users
So you've backed up your data, looked for some obvious replacements, but aren't really sure which one will work as a replacement. Before the service in question shuts down completely, head to the user discussion or support forums to see what the community is buzzing about. Frequently, users will band together and commit to a specific alternative that everyone agrees is the closest possible replacement to the service they once loved.
For example, when I discovered that ReQall, a to-do app that I once loved, had suspended development, I got suspicious about the fate of the company. Visiting its Get Satisfaction page revealed that many users have become frustrated, too. Some are holding out hope that the company gets back on track, but most are jumping ship, and aren't scared to tell you who they feel deserves their money instead. The same is true for any service: you may have to wade through a little bile to get some good options, but other users of the service will be more aware of what features were on offer.
Step Four: Use These App Discovery Tools And Services
There's an entire market of "app discovery" services out there eager to refer you to useful webapps, and services they think will work for you. Here are a few to try:
- AlternativeTo: Type in the name of the service you want to switch from or that's shutting down, and AlternativeTo will respond with a summary of the app, and some alternatives that fill the same niche, sorted by popularity. You can also sort by platform if you're looking for desktop apps.
- OSAlt: OSAlt focuses on open source applications, but can be a useful resource even if you're not concerned about source code access. The database varies in breadth depending on category, but you can (for example ) find at least five free alternatives to Microsoft Visio.
- Delicious: You might think of it as old hat, but one of my friends at Google+ reminded me that a quick search for a product category or type of app, like "task management" or "to-do manager" at Delicious will turn up thousands of suggestions and reviews.
- Crosswalk: If it's a mobile app or service you're leaving behind, Crosswalk is a great way to find out what your friends are using, see recommended apps based on the ones you have installed, and learn about new up and coming apps. It is iOS only, however.
- Discovr Apps: Discovr Apps is our favourite app discovery tool for the iPhone, mostly because it gives you an interactive map of apps to explore, using any app you have or are interested in trying as a starting point. It's an easy way to navigate the app store without resorting to the much less useful "related apps" section.
- Appreciate: Android users looking for their own network for app discovery can try Appreciate, a new service that suggests apps to you based on the ones you have installed, and shows you alternatives for every app in Google Play.
- AppBrain: AppBrain is still a great option for Android users looking to learn more about specific apps without digging through Google Play. While Google Play does a great job at presenting you related apps, AppBrain takes it one step further by suggesting apps specifically for you, based on what you already have on your phone.
- Lifehacker App Directory: We'd be remiss if we didn't mention our own listing of apps and services. In each category for each platform, we pick the app we think is the best, explain why, and outline the major alternatives. If you're looking for a more crowd-sourced approach to app or service directory, check out our Hive Five series, where we highlight the five best options in a category based on reader votes.
Keep in mind that automated services can't give you the honest, direct comparison between services that real human beings -- like the ones who are also bummed because their favourite service is shutting down -- can offer. App discovery services have great algorithms but unlike human beings, they can't tell you whether the app really does have the features you want. Don't overlook forums, or your friends on Facebook or Twitter!
Step Five: Consider Rolling Your Own
In the worst case, you may not find a replacement that you feel comfortable transitioning to. Maybe the alternatives you find don't have the features you want, or they're teetering on the edge of shutdown too. It might be time to take matters into your own hands and build your own replacement. You could develop your own, using your coding skills and communities like GitHub where you can find others working on similar projects, but you don't even have to go that far. If there's nothing out there that meets your fancy directly, roll up your DIY sleeves. Photo by Michal Hadassah.
It may sound daunting, but we've shown you how to roll your own Dropbox/Megaupload-style file sharing service, your own personal VPN, your own "Find My iPhone" for Android, even your own streaming media service and psuedo-Google Music replacement with Subsonic or with Plex. One of our readers even used Tasker to build a custom to-do app.
Even if there are no direct replacements for you, consider the DIY option -- you may come out with something better, and you'll definitely get something more tailored to your needs (and your exported data.) Best of all, you'll have a service that will never shut down and leave you out in the cold.