Data Transfer Project Could Radically Change Mobile App Development

Data lock-in is a thorny topic within tech. While users and developers often bemoan it, many companies use it to their advantage—if you can’t port your data from an app, you’re more likely to stick with that app than try out a rival product.

But the tech industry’s approach to data lock-in might undergo a seismic shift over the next few years, if a new project gains momentum. Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google—often rivals in one market or another—have bonded together under the auspices of the open-source Data Transfer Project, which will give users the ability to port data from these companies between apps.

“The Data Transfer Project uses services’ existing APIs and authorization mechanisms to access data. It then uses service specific adapters to transfer that data into a common format, and then back into the new service’s API,” reads the project’s homepage.“DTP aims make move [sic] data between providers significantly easier for users.”

If you’re interested in seeing the still-in-development code, check out the project’s GitHub page, which includes a technical overview. The guiding principles advocate encryption in transit between services, data transparency, and measures “to educate an individual about the data being transferred and how the data will be used at the destination service.”

At first, it might seem strange that these tech giants want to facilitate users’ ability to try out new services and sidestep vendor lock-in. However, loosening up the barriers on data transfer may help these companies avoid any future accusations of anticompetitive or monopolistic practices. (This sort of data policy might also help companies with EU customers remain in compliance with GDPR, which is very stringent with regard to user data.)

For startups and smaller apps, the Data Transfer Project could end up having big implications. If users can seamlessly port data such as contacts, tasks, images and video, and even calendar updates from a larger service to a tinier one, it could give the latter a competitive boost. Users are more likely to use a new service if it’s quick and easy for them to seed their profile with all the preexisting data they need.

As with so many things, though, it all comes down to ease of use and UX. If users can quickly and seamlessly port their personal data between applications, this project could radically change how apps are structured. But if it’s a difficult process, we likely won’t see much change in users trying to take their data to another service—even as these big tech companies claim they’re more open than ever before.