968418_63460109I use a lot of free online services every day, along with a few applications I downloaded from the web. There are a few that I really can’t get any work done without: all my email goes to Gmail, I use Scribefire to write each of my blog posts and I’m constantly using Twitter to do research. I particularly like web-based applications because I can switch computers without a problem.

Despite the benefits of using all these great applications, though, sometimes something goes wrong. Last week, for instance, ScribeFire 3.2 came out. I updated and got back to writing blog posts. When I went to publish, though, nothing happened. Something had broken with the update. The folks at ScribeFire got things fixed up in a hurry, releasing version 3.2.1, but it’s a good reminder to have a plan of action in place if you rely on an application that you have only minimal control over.

Putting Together That Plan

Sometimes you’ll try to access a service that normally works just fine — but there will be some sort of hiccup in the process. A hiccup doesn’t always mean that something has gone wrong with the service you’re using, though: there can be a problem at your end just as easily as there can be a passing problem. Assuming the issue doesn’t resolve itself immediately, it’s worth checking to see whether other people are having the same issue.

My initial plan has two parts. First, I visit DownForEveryoneOrJustMe.com. Just type in the site that you’re having problems with on the front page and you’ll get an immediate response on whether the site is up or down. It’s an extremely simple approach, useful as an initial check. My second stop is usually Twitter. Many Twitter users have gotten into the habit of posting about their problems with applications almost immediately. Visiting Search.Twitter.com and looking for a specific application name can give you a good idea of who’s having problems.

In many cases, Twitter offers a much better over all view — especially if there is a problem with an application with a working website. For ScribeFire, for instance, DownForEveryoneOrJustMe.com didn’t really help me. ScribeFire.com was certainly still up with no problems, but when I checked Twitter, I could see quickly that other bloggers were seeing the same issue.

Getting A Solution

Knowing what isn’t working doesn’t always help you that much. You may be okay with a site or service being down for a little while if you have a backup of your data on your own computer, but not too many of us are actually as good about backing up data as we ought to be. In most cases, though, not being able to access services that we’ve come to rely on can be a bit of a problem.

I make a point of trying to find out if the service provider has made any sort of announcement before doing anything else. Depending on what kind of service we’re talking about, such an announcement could be on a blog, on Twitter, sent out in an email or even placed on someone’s personal website. More than few times, I’ve seen announcements that amount to, “Yes, we know the service is down. Please stop emailing us and let us focus on fixing it.” If I see something like that, I figure that I need to just try to switch to working without that particular service or application for the time being.

Other sites will share things that users can do, like installing a new plugin or using a different URL. Occasionally, you even run into websites that don’t even mention that there’s a problem with the service. When that’s the situation, I typically look for an email address that will let me connect to the help department or someone else that can update me on the situation.

I’ve talked to some people who don’t feel that it’s appropriate to email a person or company that offers a free service, asking why that service isn’t working. The reasoning is that when we use free web applications and other tools, we run the risk of them not working. I strongly disagree. When I couldn’t find information about how to get ScribeFire back up and running, I fired off an email. I got a great response: within a day, I had a response including a link to the new upgrade. It has always been my experience that even if a service is free, you can get plenty of help from the service provider.

Waiting Out Downtime

When you rely on a service and you’re not interested in making the switch to another option — whether the question is expense, hassle or something else — sometimes the only real option is to wait out the downtime. Even if your most important documents or data is inaccessible because some website is down, there may not be anything you can do. Even contacting the site doesn’t always help — and a rude or angry email might do more harm than good.

Downtime comes with putting a good portion of your work in the cloud. The only way to avoid it is to work only on programs installed on your own computer (and even then, it isn’t guaranteed). It’s worth having a side project that you can work on if a web application, online service or even the power that runs your computer goes down.

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