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We recently spent some time at Internet World and the brand new ASP Summit. (We haven’t figured out why the very Web-knowledgeable vendors represented at these shows find it useful to spend a lot of money at in-person shows, rather than relying on the Web to attract leads.) Walking through these shows, we realized for the first time how fragmented the business has become, and how it is not only “bricks and mortar” end users, but Web site owners themselves who can use a variety of software and services sold by other Web sites to do their businesses. Consider a simple purchase from a Web store. The site’s home page may be on the site owner’s own computers, but can also be located on the computers owned and maintained by something that might be called, in this fantasy, WebServers.com. You sign on, and your name and password is sent for verification to Identity.com. You enter the product you are looking for in the search box, and WebServers.com sends the search request to WebInventory.com, which finds the product and checks the inventory. If you decide to buy, CreditCard.com charges the purchase, Inventory.com decrements the inventory and sends pick information to the warehouse, your purchase information is sent to PurchaseInfo.com and the outsourced GeneralLedger.com, and the item is eventually sent via the mail or the FedEx truck. These interlocking systems work together, but what of your data? The information about you and your purchases is conceivably available on several servers in different parts of the country, maybe in a fragmented form, but just as conceivably all of it together, on each server that the order has touched. Bad for folks concerned with privacy, of course, but we assume that anyone who really wants to find out about us will be able to do so, with or without the Internet. When you sign up for a Web-based office suite there may be other multiple vendor problems. You can be dealing, for example, with LawOfficeAPS.com, which is using its own case management software, but sublicensing e-mail and instant message software from communications.com, time and billing from the seemingly ubiquitous vulgar.com, document management from docmanage.com, and so forth. It is difficult to know where your data are from time to time, and even if you do know, it is difficult to determine how to get to the data in an emergency. You may have checked out LawOfficeAPS, found the company quite solvent and responsible and made arrangements to get your data back in some reasonable form if the company went out of business, but how solvent are the businesses that LawOfficeAPS is working with, and what contractual arrangements do they have? The online contracts that we’ve seen for these vendors, while not much worse than the standard shrinkwrap contracts of adhesion you receive with most software, the seem not to address at all the problems of protecting your data and multi-vendor licensing. We like the idea of Web-based thin client applications, but before we would bet our practice on them, we’d like to know what happens when the dot-com we are dealing with, or the dot-com that our dot-com is dealing with, suddenly goes out of business. All we can recommend at this point is to Know Your Vendor, and be Very Careful.

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