It’s Alive: Xmarks Back From the Brink

5 minute read

xmarks-alive-225Mashable: It looks like cross-browser, bookmark syncing service Xmarks won’t be going out of business after all.

Just over a month after announcing that the service would be closing its doors and shutting down operations come January 2011, the company has announced that it is in the final stages of selling Xmarks to a new owner who is focused on keeping the tool running smoothly.

Xmarks announced the news on its official blog, noting that exact details can’t be revealed just yet, but that the service is alive and “things are on track for a ‘new and improved’ Xmarks.”
The Xmarks blog says that the Xmarks service will evolve into offering free and premium components. Details about what will be included in the premium offering are promised to come at a later date.

A premium offering is actually one of the plans that Xmarks initially rejected when trying to find ways to make its business profitable. It was only after the user outcry exploded following Xmarks’s announcement that the service would end that the company decided to test potential user interest in a premium model of service. The initial goal was to get 100,000 users to “pledge” that they would spend $10 to $20 per year on Xmarks service.

Although Xmarks didn’t meet that goal — only 33,000 or so members pledged support — within 10 days of the pledge, it became clear that it probably wouldn’t have to. Press reports of the service’s closure, the Xmarks Pledge and user anguish on social networks opened the door for new acquisition offers. Xmarks stopped sending e-mails to users about the shutdown and didn’t even bother to promote the pledge. Now with the final buyout almost complete, it looks like users will be able to continue to use the service — although some of the best features will potentially come at a price.

The saga of Xmarks is pretty interesting because it flies in the face of the notion that with enough users, you can find a way to make money. Xmarks has more than 2 million users, but it wasn’t able to monetize without charging directly for services. The service is valuable — the users love it — the data is presumably valuable, but aside from directly charging users, there just wasn’t a way to make the business scale.

Underestimating Value

As a long-time Xmarks user, I’m relieved that I won’t have to come up with some ridiculous duct-taped rsync pseudo-replacement for managing my bookmarks. Xmarks as a product has value, and I think that its value was underestimated and minimized by the Xmarks team.

Looking back, I think that Xmarks and its investors saw the product’s primary value as bookmark syncing. When the product first debuted as the Firefox extension Foxmarks, this was true. However, once Mozilla Weave (the precursor for Firefox Sync) entered beta, that value was greatly diminished (not to mention Google Chrome’s auto-sync ability). Instead, what made Xmarks different — what made it valuable — was its ability to work across browsers.

To be sure, this isn’t a feature that is valuable for every user — most users stick to one primary browser. Incidentally, most users also only use one primary computer, which calls into question the relative value of bookmark syncing period, but I digress. However, for those users that do use multiple browsers, Xmarks is utterly unique in what it offers.

To use myself as an example — I regularly use Safari, Chrome and Firefox on my various Macs. Xmarks is the only way I can keep all the bookmarks in sync without going through a lot of hassle. I also like to have specific browser — and even machine-specific — profiles. For instance, there are bookmarklets that I have on my bookmarks bar that I don’t want to appear in Safari because I have an extension or designated toolbar. There are also some localhost bookmarks that are specific to certain machines and that I choose not to sync.

Admittedly, I’m not the average Internet user, but I’m willing to bet that there are more users who want a way to granularly keep their bookmarks synced across browsers — without having to resort to writing really messy shell scripts and futzing around with rsync — than Xmarks expected. I’m equally sure that some of those users, including myself, are willing to pay for the service.

Whether that user base will be enough to sustain the company under its new owner isn’t clear. At least, however, we’ll get a chance to find out.