Imagine going to the bank to retrieve important documents from your safe-deposit box and finding nothing there. By that, I mean nothing - the bank itself has disappeared, leaving an empty building and no forwarding address.
Would you be just a trifle concerned?
Thats what happened in March to thousands of customers who stored their digital images on a Web site called ClubPhoto.com. It was the latest among the scores of photo sharing Web sites that popped up during the dot-com boom but then went belly-up.
Their owners discovered, the hard way, that attracting customers and making money were two different propositions.
I know about this because I was one of ClubPhotos longtime customers. Over five years, Id created dozens of online albums that chronicled family gatherings, vacations, wrestling matches, football games, proms, birthdays, graduations and other happy events.
Friends and relatives browsed the photos online, and I used ClubPhotos printing service to send copies to the unwired. The print quality was better than I could produce at home, the prices were reasonable, and it took a lot less time than printing myself.
My particular chapter of this story appears to have a happy ending, or at least one that avoids total disaster. Thats because another online photo outfit called Winkflash.com bought the defunct ClubPhotos servers at auction and is gradually restoring its customers albums - mine among them.
For that, Im grateful. Although I had the originals of those digital images, theyre scattered all over my hard drives, and they would have taken weeks to reorganize.
And the incident taught me a lesson: No matter how attractive and convenient online file storage may seem, youre never really safe unless you have backup on a disk or hard drive you can put your hands on.
It took me a couple of months to figure out exactly what happened to ClubPhoto. All I knew at the outset was that one day in March, when I tried to log in to upload new photos, my browser gave me a 404 Error.
Thats geek-speak for Not found. It usually turns up when a Web server has crashed or when you mistakenly enter the name of a nonexistent Web page in your browsers address bar.
Most 404 problems are resolved within a few hours, when the server goes back online. But ClubPhoto never returned, and we never got as much as an e-mail from the company that operated the site.
One reason I had trusted ClubPhoto was that it wasnt free. It allowed customers to keep albums online for up to 90 days at no charge, but I paid $25 a year, which allowed me to maintain up to 30 permanent albums.
I figured an outfit with a steady rental income would be more likely to stay afloat than a business that depended strictly on low-margin print orders.
But from Web research, news archives and conversations with some of those involved, I learned that the ClubPhoto service to which I originally subscribed - and liked so much - was bought by an outfit called Photo TLC of Petaluma, Calif.
Until that time, Photo TLC was basically in the fulfillment business, which means it produced the photo mugs, mouse pads, albums, custom prints and T-shirts that customers ordered from other online photo sites.
Although it had millions in venture funding, including a big poke from Disneys Steamboat Ventures, employees said Photo TLC squandered its opportunities, and on March 6, it sent its employees home without warning or explanation. A few days later, the ClubPhoto site disappeared, also without warning.
(This was actually the second photo site that was shot out from under me. In the early days of photo sharing, I signed up with one of the pioneers, Zing.com. I was crushed when the company shut down its retail operation in 2001. To its credit, Zing did give us notice and a process to return photos to those who wanted them.)
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