By Leo Babauta
Are we too reliant on Google’s services? As long-time readers know, I love Google’s products and use them daily, as they’re absolutely the best I’ve tried in their categories: Google search, Gmail, Google Chrome browser, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Picasa, mostly.
But is it dangerous to give all our information and to rely so completely on one corporation? Should we be worried? Should we be looking for alternatives? Should we be moving our data out of Google as soon as possible?
Another thing that concerns me is the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. It’s bad enough that advertising is already so pervasive — in television, in newspapers and magazines and blogs, on billboards and in our mail. But if it’s also in our email, calendars, maps, search, and basically everything we do every day, then there’s no hiding from it. I’m not convinced that using amazing software is worth giving a corporation complete access to my life and my attention.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time. I don’t have answers.
However, last week, I decided to try an experiment: could I go (mostly) Google-free? How hard would it be? How much would I like the alternatives?
It took me one day.
Here’s how I did it, and how it’s turned out so far.
First, Overall Principles
Remember that my main reasons for doing this are that 1) I don’t want all my data in one corporation and 2) I don’t want everything I do to be pervaded by advertising.
So the main principles I chose when seeking good alternatives were to find services that:
- are not Google (whether it’s a corporation or not)
- are pretty good to use
And in an ideal world, those alternatives would also be:
- free, open-source, using open-standards
- free of advertising
- non-corporate (small businesses are OK)
- as good as or better than the Google services they’re replacing
These last few ideals are not necessary, but would be great. In most cases, I didn’t achieve them.
The all-pervasive app that we can’t live without. There aren’t really good alternatives — there’s Google search, then there’s everyone else. Bing gets talked about a lot, but I don’t much like the results and Microsoft isn’t any better in my mind than Google. Same with Yahoo.
A word on Scroogle — actually it uses Google’s search, but sets up an intermediary (Scroogle) that sits between your computer and Google’s servers. Google places its cookie on Scroogle’s computer, and then Scroogle deletes it, and also deletes any logs of your anonymous searches. So the results are as good as Googles, but ad-free, without Google’s tracking, and 100 results per page (instead of the frustrating 10 results that Google has).
Update: Be sure to go to Scroogle.org, not Scroogle.com, which is completely different and NSFW.
Still, it seems like cheating, so I’ve been alternatively trying Clutsy and ixquick. Both are decent, not the best, but also sometimes have ads.
The transition so far: I set up each of these as my browser’s default search engine for a little while. They all work fine, but I’ve been finding Scroogle finds the results I want more often.
I absolutely love Gmail, so giving this up has been as hard as Google Search. It’s by far the best email program, period. And I’ve tried almost all. Luckily, I’m far less reliant on email these days — mostly it’s just for family and a few business partners.
The alternative I chose: Fastmail. It’s not as pretty as Gmail, but it’s fast and secure and has a lot of great features. Most importantly for me, it has great spam filters (as Gmail does) and keyboard shortcuts. If you pay a nominal fee ($5 for a year, or less than 10 cents per week), you also don’t get any ads.
The transition so far: It was easy to set up, and I forwarded all incoming Gmail emails to Fastmail. Eventually I’ll delete my Gmail, but for now I’ll leave it. I like Fastmail almost as much as Gmail, especially now that I’ve set up a few key folders (like Archive) and filters and learned the keyboard shortcuts. A couple things I really miss: Send & Archive (in one button or shortcut), automatic adding of email addresses to the address book (Fastmail does it but you have to confirm each time), and threaded conversations.
In the last few months, Chrome has been hands down my favorite browser, for its simplicity, speed, and beautiful features. I love it, and can’t do without it. Firefox, Safari, Camino, Opera all seem clunky next to Chrome.
The alternative I chose: Chromium, the open-source version of Chrome. This is almost cheating, as it’s practically the same browser. But after switching to other browsers for a little while, I couldn’t stand it, so I chose Chromium. It’s open-source, which is great, and doesn’t track your info like Google does.
The transition so far: absolutely painless. I had to migrate some of the keyword bookmarks I’d set up for Chrome, but that took a few minutes. Otherwise, it’s the same browsing experience, and just as stable.
I store almost everything in Google Docs (and Dropbox, for text files I draft on my computer). It’s absolutely great for sharing documents. Haven’t used Microsoft Office in years.
The alternative I chose: Zoho, an online document and productivity suite, actually more complete than Google Docs. I’d tried it in 2007 but concluded that Google Docs (or Writely, before that) was better. That hasn’t changed, but Zoho is a decent second.
The transition so far: Migrating is fairly painless. You can sign up for a free account, and you can even import your Google Docs (through a mis-labeled “Upload” button), though only 5 Google Docs at a time. Zoho works just as you’d hope, though it’s not quite as good or fast as Google Docs. Still a good alternative, although I’d love an open-source alternative that worked as well.
Other alternatives: Etherpad looks great but was BOUGHT BY GOOGLE! It’s now open-sourced so you can try it Google-free at Typewith.me or PiratePad. While these are great for individual collaborative documents, unfortunately it isn’t a great replacement for Google Docs in managing a lot of documents. Others to check out include drop.io, Feng Office, Peepel.
By far the best RSS reader (for reading blogs & news), Google Reader is simple, fast, and always synced no matter what computer you’re using. It beats desktop RSS readers easily, and I’ve used them all.
The alternative I chose: Vienna, an open-source desktop app for Mac. I was using NetNewsWire for a little while and liked it but then realized there was no way to sync without Google Reader anymore, and as I don’t want to give my info to Google, I had to ditch it. So I tried Vienna, which doesn’t have sync at all, but is even better than NetNewsWire in every other way. And is open-sourced and ad-free, which is great.
The transition so far: As Vienna doesn’t sync (at least I haven’t figured out how), I just read on my Macbook Air, which is absolutely fine. It means my iMac is now just for working, and not reading, which is actually a great thing for my productivity and focus. I exported my subscriptions from Google Reader and imported into Vienna, which took like 30 seconds, and otherwise reading in Vienna is great.
Other alternatives: online readers such as Netvibes, Pageflakes, and Bloglines, or desktop readers such as Netnewswire, FeedDemon, RSS Owl, Thunderbird (not a great RSS reader in my view), or self-hosted varieties such as Gobble RSS or Fever, or browser plugins such as Sage.
Absolutely my favorite calendar ever, I’ve been using Gcal for almost four years and love it. So much better than iCal or Outlook, it’s simple and fast and accessible everywhere.
The alternative I chose: 30 Boxes, another good online calendar that I can share with my wife and access from multiple computers. I tried this several years ago but liked Gcal better — still do, but they’re fairly close.
The transition so far: I probably could have found an easier way to export Gcal events and import into 30 Boxes, but I was testing out 30 Boxes and started entering the events manually. It’s pretty fast and painless, so I ended up doing all my events by hand. Took about 20-30 minutes. 30 Boxes works pretty much as you’d hope, and I haven’t had any problems so far.
Great photo management software that’s integrated on my desktop and online. Makes syncing your photos painless and works better than you’d expect if you’re used to clunkier alternatives such as iPhoto.
The alternative I chose: SmugMug, which is a beautiful online photo app but not cheap (if you do sign up, use my coupon to save $5: TlepT5Lpv1XmQ).
The transition so far: Honestly, I haven’t fully made this transition yet as I have thousands of photos in Picasa and haven’t had the time to move them all to SmugMug. I’ve uploaded some of the photos I have in iPhoto using a free plugin, and it works pretty well, but moving all the photos will take a little time. SmugMug is a nice service, though again, not cheap.
Other alternatives: Flickr (which is good but I’ve never been a fan), iPhoto, a few others I didn’t bother to look at.
Not Fully Google-free Yet
There are some things that I haven’t done yet, but plan to do in the future to get fully Google-free:
- migrate all photos & other data from Google’s services
- shut down my Gmail once my main contacts know my new address
- move from Feedburner’s blog subscription service (I actually forgot about that until just now)
- stop using minor services (minor to me as I hardly use them) such as Google Maps – haven’t researched alternatives for these yet
There might be others that I’ve forgotten about, so it’ll take a bit longer than a day. But in one day, I was able to move from the main Google services I’ve been using for years, to good alternatives.
Overall, I haven’t missed the Google services one bit. I really thought it would be harder to make the switch, but it was fast, fairly easy, and without glitches.
The services I’m using are almost as good, and once you get used to them you don’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice.
I need to be clear: I don’t hate Google, nor do I think they’re evil. They make great things, and in general have been more supportive of open standards and open source than other corporations like Microsoft or Apple. But it’s not wise to put everything you have into one corporation, nor do I like commercializing my entire life. It was time for a change.
I also believe that if you give someone power, eventually they’ll abuse it. It’s just a matter of time. How much power should we give one corporation?
I don’t know if I’ll stay (mostly) Google-free, or if I’ll eventually head back to Gmail or one of the other services. But I do know that I like using multiple services — putting my eggs in different baskets — and I like having fewer ads in my life. And I also know that it’s possible to get out of Google’s clutches.
Update: This was a temporary experiment that lasted about 6 months. I am no longer Google-free. My apologies!
Post inspired by Freemor.