Still Replacing Google Services

I’ve been using the internet long enough to remember the wreck it was before Google came along.  Before Google came along, search engines only indexed meta data–and shady sites would lie in their meta data (description tag) causing the accidental opening of porn sites and other things that one would rather not see. Google’s indexing of entire sites was revolutionary and made the web a better place.

Then along came Gmail with its then whopping 1 GB of storage. Before this, webmail services offered a few MBs and it was necessary to delete mail as it came in to keep from exceeding your quota.  Adequate storage was an amazing idea and made the web a better place.

Over time Google released more services, many revolutionary, many amazing, many making the web a better place. I found myself using many of them…Android, Play Store, Search, Docs, Drive, Voice, Reader, Chrome, Music, News, Maps, Calendar, Sites, Books, Picasa, Youtube,…

Then, at about the same time, three events occurred that caused me to re-think my relationship with Google and its services. First there was Google Now, a fairly amazing predictive assistant for Android. Then Google Plus, an attempt by Google to compete with Facebook. And thirdly, Larry Page replaced Eric Schmidt as CEO of Google. Let’s take each of these in order before continuing.

When Google Now was released I quickly enabled it on my phone.  And like many Google services, it was amazing. Within a few days it was offering up suggestions and it quickly became apparent that Google had amassed a huge amount of data about me. They knew when and where I worked, they knew where I went, where I wanted to go (maps searches), who I talked to, intimate details of my life (calendar), and much much more. Appalled, I turned off Google Now and began re-thinking my relationship to Google.

Google saw Facebook eating the internet and cobbled together Google Plus to compete. Not deterred by no one using it, Google forced integration into its other services to push up the user base.  Picasa web was diminished as photo features were pushed to Plus, Youtube comments need a Plus account to use, you can not review an app on the Play Store without having a Plus account, and many more. As it spread, Plus also became more and more intrusive. And since no one uses Plus, there was no added value to this increasingly intrusive activity.

Eric Schmidt was always creepy, but when he turned the reigns of Google over to co-founder Larry Page, the don’t do evil thing seems to have fallen by the wayside. He seems mostly to blame for the ever increasing encroachment of Plus into everything while coming off as Machiavellian to a dangerous degree. From ending popular services to creating a dystopian future, Google has become a much worse public citizen since his return.

These three events, along with the Snowden leaks, have led me to reconsider my relationship with Google. There is no guarantee that Google is a decent steward of my data, even the fact that the accumulated data exists at all, makes it a target for NSA snooping or other nefarious access. The question I had to ask was, “do I trust an ad agency to know the most intimate details of my life?” Despite all the services that it offers, Google remains an advertising agency and amassing a portfolio on each of its users is its main objective. There is an old saw that states that “when a company is giving away its services, the product is you.” This could not be truer of Google, they do not offer these amazing services out of an altruistic leaning. The product is you.

With the decision made to start decreasing my reliance on Google’s many services, the question became how to begin? Particularly when the company has become synonymous with the internet? The rest of this post illustrates my personal pulling back (or is that pushing out?) from Google’s many services, finding alternatives and shuffling data to make things work in a cohesive fashion. My journey will not translate to your path, I only offer it here as one possibility, as they say: “Your mileage may vary.”

Before breaking down the challenges of switching various services, one other point must be brought to light. Integration. Google is huge and its reach is both long and wide, the integration of its various services is perhaps the largest hurdle to leaving it behind. Add a contact to Gmail and it automatically changes on your Android device and on Voice. And since no single service can replace Google (there would be no point in switching if it did) some of this convenience will surely be lost.

With the preamble out of the way, lets jump into switching services, we’ll start with the big one: Search. Google has become synonymous with search to the point that we actually use it as a verb. They are also very good at it, this makes it difficult to find a decent alternative. Two privacy focused alternatives are available; DuckDuckGo and IXQuick. Each of these services had major road blocks preventing me from switching to them as replacements to Google search. DuckDuckGo while offering quality results without tracking cookies does not allow one to filter for recent documents, a feature that I am dependent on for finding things. IXQuick pulls and integrates results from other services giving good results, it allows filtering for recent documents, but its ads are not easily distinguishable from the results. Either of these services may meet your needs, but I decided to go with Bing for the majority of my search needs. Occasionally I still fallback to Google to find that hard to find item, but overall Bing offers a compelling alternative. While Microsoft may be as bad as Google in many respects, using a single service does not allow them to gain as much of my data as Google has acquired.

Google’s Gmail webmail is another best of breed service.  After googling searching the web for good alternatives I tested three services, any of which could be a good replacement. GMX, Zoho, and Microsoft’s Outlook (formerly Hotmail or Live). Both Zoho and Outlook offer contacts and calendar integration and both sync with Android. If these services and integration are important to you you may want to consider one of them.  I decided to go with Zoho Mail (although I do not use their contacts and calendar–see below.)  After setting up a Zoho account, I logged into both Gmail and Zoho through the Thunderbird email client using IMAP, I was then able to drag my Gmail archive into Zoho where it was uploaded allowing me to have continuity. I then forwarded my Gmail to Zoho giving me plenty of time to get my email changed with friends, associates, and services. I use my own domain with Zoho which is free and easy to set up.

Some of the Google services that I was using I found to be superfluous and unnecessary.  So while seeking alternatives, I found that I didn’t really need one, I simply dropped the service. These unneeded services included Google Music, Youtube, and Google Now. I have a large local collection of music and really did not need Google’s Music service. If you stream music you might consider a service like Pandora or Spotify; for buying digital music I use Amazon mp3 store. Since my online video needs are limited, I found Vimeo to be a solid replacement for Youtube. Google Now was simply dumped as not necessary to my needs.

Maps is a hard to do service that Google has done a great job with, finding a replacement was difficult. Two online services which come close to matching Google are Bing Maps and Nokia’s Here Maps. I went with Here Maps and find it perfectly adequate for my needs. It gives good directions, it is fast and fluid, and it is easy to use. Unfortunately, there are no Here Maps for Android. I decided on a paid map app that gives good results, is available 100% offline and has turn-by-turn navigation; OsmAnd+Maps and Navigation, it costs $8 and uses Open Street Maps as a data source.

Google shut-down its RSS Reader making a switch easy.  With the demise of Google Reader many services sprang up to take its place. The Old Reader and Feedly came closest to meeting my needs, they are both very good services. In the end, I decided to go with a self hosted service called Tiny Tiny RSS. Self hosting is not for everyone, but either of the above listed services are good alternatives. TT-RSS was easy to set up on my Raspberry Pi and is fast with a nice interface and keyboard shortcuts.

Google’s web browser, Chrome, was an easy one to replace. I simply reverted to Firefox. Firefox is cross platform on the desktop and also runs on Android. If you quit using Firefox long ago because it was slow, give it another try, it is faster and uses less RAM than ever. Also Mozilla, the makers of Firefox, are one of the best internet citizens.

Contacts/Calendar, if you decided to go with Zoho mail above, then you are all set, these are included and sync with Android using Exchange.  Microsoft’s Outlook service also has contacts and calendar baked in and it, too, seamlessly syncs with Android. Either of these two services are more than adequate replacements for those of Google. Once again, I went with a self-hosted solution called OwnCloud. As stated above, self-hosting is not for everyone, but if you are up for it, OwnCloud is a feature rich web service running on your own server. Since it uses industry standards to sync data, your contacts and calendar are available wherever you need them (although in a vain attempt to protect its own technologies, Microsoft is slow to adopt these standards).

For many, Google’s online documents editor (Docs) and cloud storage (Drive) are indispensable.  I was heavily invested in Docs but since Drive was so late to the game, and lacked a Linux client, I never really used it.  My needs for cloud document editing are quite limited, I use an Android app from Zoho called Writer to edit documents stored on Dropbox which are then synced to my desktop. Zoho also offers online document editing as does Microsoft on its Skydrive storage service. For cloud storage with desktop sync there are numerous alternatives to Drive, besides Dropbox and Skydrive, there is also Box, Copy, and numerous others (Wuala, SpiderOak, etc…); most of these have a mobile application. I would be remiss not to mention that the self-hosted OwnCloud also has online storage with a desktop and mobile client.

The Google Play Books is unique among book services in that it allows you to upload your own books and then makes them available on all your devices. This makes it superior to its main rivals, with Kindel being the main one. Since I only read digital books on my Android tablet, I went with an Android app to replace Google Books.  I chose to go with Moon+ Reader which integrates with the desktop client Calibre and also with Dropbox to load books and synchronize reading position between devices.

Picasa web photo albums used to be a great service, but with the advent of Google Plus it has gone steadily downhill.  Since Yahoo has recently started showing Flickr some update love the decision to move back to Flickr was an easy one. Since Flickr now offers a full terabyte of data storage, the choice was an easy one.

For free web hosting I switched from Google Sites to Zoho Sites, while it has ads, they are fairly inconspicuous.

Google Voice used to be best of breed for online telephony, but it has not been updated in a long time (years?). I ended up porting my number to RingTo and have not regretted the switch. RingTo does number forwarding and has online voicemail as well as an Android app.

I still use Google News regularly and have not found an adequate replacement.

A special note on Android: I am pretty much an Android fanboy. However, I have a love hate relationship with the carriers. To rectify this, I root my devices and install an alternative version of Android based on the Android Open Source Project called Cyanogenmod. Since I have a monetary investment in apps from the Google Play Store, I continue to use this service. However, I keep my usage to a minimum be also relying on two other app stores: F-Droid has only free open source apps while Amazon App Store has paid apps and even gives away a free one every day.

So, with the exception of News and the Android app store, I have completely weened myself of Google’s services. While this does not stop the NSA from accessing all of my data, it at least makes it less convenient than the one stop shop of Google.

What about you, are you re-thinking your relationship with Google? If so, how is it going? When I first started this adventure over 6 months ago it seemed like an insurmountable challenge but turned out to be fairly easy with hardly any inconvenience.


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