I first tried Genie Home edition, which had won a PC Magazine editors' choice award. I knew right away that I'd made a bad choice when I saw the following dialog box at installation:
This is a product whose designers consider Easy to be the opposite of Normal. It reminds me of the Three Stooges comedy short No Census, No Feeling (1940), in which Moe asks a man, "Are you married, or happy?" And they make "not easy" the default choice. Not the right product for me.
Genie offers many, many choices, as shown here:
It is immensely powerful. It can do almost anything one might ever want to do with backup. But this flexibility is not what home users, small business users, and arguably many large business users need or want. They want to be safe, but not so badly that they'll think about it or lift a finger to do it. And they shouldn't have to.
Like seat belts or birth control, disk backup schemes only work if you use them. Therefore the right method for you is not the one that works best in the laboratory, but the one that impinges on your lifestyle the least so that you actually do use it. Since backup programs require thought to set up, and then effort to use, no one ever does it. We all have a "hierarchy of needs", as one of my students once described it, and any given disk backup ranks low in that hierarchy. It's really, really easy to let this one slide, because it doesn't bite you TODAY, and lots of other stuff does. They (and I, and probably you, too) need disk backup that Just Works.
Such a program is Carbonite automatic online disk backup (http://www.carbonite.com/). (Note: I have no business relationship with Carbonite other than as a satisfied customer. Another product called Mozy does similar things. I haven't used it, but Walter Mossberg liked both products in a recent review.) You download and install a program which runs in the background whenever your system is running. Every time a data file changes, Carbonite waits 10 minutes to see if it'll change again, then automatically sends the file over your broadband connection to its backup server. You don't have to think at all, or touch anything. It's completely fire-and-forget. Compare the Genie screen shown above with Carbonite's status screen here. Which would you rather see?
Carbonite does the things that most users care about most of the time – protects against disk crashes, or your machine getting lost or stolen. It stores the backed-up data off your site to protect it against fire or disaster, and keeps files for a month after you delete them from your hard drive to protect against accidental deletion. If you lose data (WHEN you lose data, the Second Law of Thermodynamics guarantees that you will), you restore it through the Windows Explorer. It costs $50 / year for unlimited storage, so you don't have to think about the size of your backup data (mine's about 13 gigabytes).
Carbonite omits the features that few users care about, and the product is much more reliable and easy to use as a result. Its option screen is shown in the following picture, and you can see that there aren't many:
I consider this absence of frills to be a very attractive feature. You can't, for example, schedule Carbonite to run at particular times. There's no need, because it's always sitting in the background, backing up changed files as soon as it can. You can't easily get it to back up your program files or system registry unless you go digging. Again, that's not what most people care about most of the time. If you lose your data, you have probably lost your whole disk, in which case you are better off with a clean install of programs from their sources. Your data, like my daughters' baby pictures, can't be replaced by a commercial vendor. Carbonite won't back up any file larger than 4 gigabytes, but few users have files that large (about 7 CDs worth in a single file; we're talking full-length full-size movie here.) It only keeps deleted files for a month, and doesn't keep multiple versions of a file, only the most recent. To my mind, adding these so-called features would detract from its main benefit – protection against the primary hazards (hardware failure, loss, or theft; site disaster; inadvertent deletion) with exactly zero thought or effort.
Developers ask me, "My sales people will laugh in my face if I send them out without a list of features as long as my arm, like Genie has. How the hell can I give them something that Just Works?" That's looking at the problem exactly backwards. Your user isn't you. What home user, what small business administrator, and even how many enterprise-scale administrators could turn down the sales pitch, "Write me a check, then scratch 'disk backup' off your to-do list forever. Or at least until next year, when you spend five minutes to write me another check, then go back to ignoring me." None, none, and not many.
Carbonite is the best example I've found so far of a good, useful program that Just Works. We need more programs to work this way. Send me your examples, good or bad, so I can trumpet them from the rooftops.