An experiment to be Google-Free
Update on 5 Oct, 2012 : Still on Mac applications, but now using the free email mailbox option of my domain registrar Gandi.net + local Thunderbird email folders instead of Rackspace Email. Desktop apps are better for frequently used stuff. No matter how many times web apps lure me into “available everywhere” + “mobile syncing” feature. For example, the Brief addon for Firefox is so much more responsive and pleasant to use than Google Reader, although Google Reader’s advantage is that it works on mobile as well. I spend too much time with my mobile phone anyway, so it’s a good way to dis-incentivize me from using that screen.
Update on 13 Jan, 2012: Most of my online services has been replaced by good Mac applications + Dropbox. I have moved away from Zoho services because their UI tended to be quite buggy, and using the browser’s “live bookmarks” feature as the RSS reader. The main things I’m still dependent on Google for is Feedburner (because it is the standard for RSS reader count) and Google Analytics (again, the standard for analytics).
Update on 30 Jul, 2011: I have switched to another paid option now – Rackspace Email.
Update on 24 Apr, 2011: I was using Zoho Mail exclusively for a long time, but I got tired of my email landing in spam folders of Yahoo! Mail and Gmail users. Going back to Yahoo! Mail was not an option (IMAP support is only in an expensive paid option and I don’t like the Yahoo! Mail UI any more), so the Hobson’s choice was to get back to Gmail. Sigh.
A series of incidents and thoughts led me to try an experiment – to be “100% Google Free”. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and ended up admiring Google a lot, and at the same time, worried and curious about what they do with all that data they have.
First things first, since I no longer use Google’s Feedburner, please kindly update your RSS readers to use http://www.swaroopch.com/feed/ instead of the earlier Feedburner link. For those 140+ people who are subscribed via email, I have migrated to MailChimp (emails were also being sent by Feedburner earlier), so emails will continue to be delivered to you from this post onwards. You can subscribe or unsubscribe for email delivery on this page.
Back to the main topic… there were a few reasons that led me to this experiment:
- Security : I have been bitten in the past due to flaws in certain intentional security designs by Google products, and this was a put-off for me.
- Privacy : Google seems to be blind to the importance of privacy – the recent Google Buzz fiasco was just a confirmation of my fears. Sure, they did do a quick turnaroundimmediately because it was a publicly released product. What about the data they have and are using privately? For example:
- Did you realize that if you “log out” of Google, it doesn’t matter – they still associate your activities with your “log in” ID!
- In order to make “improvements” to their ads matching, they will use the searches you just made “for a few hours” to show ads if Google cannot find good ads for a random web page that you are visiting which is displaying Google ads.
- And what about the long-term damage they might be inflicting? Especially the kids? Are they getting a bit… arrogant? Is it just “good business”?
- The worst part is that user’s don’t care about their own privacy. They just won’t do anything about it.
- Before you stereotype me as a luddite, let me be clear – I do not think that online == unsafe (I trust LastPass with notes on my bank details), I am not against data collection (that’s the only way online businesses can improve their products), I am not against data mining (shopping recommendations FTW), and I am not against ad-supported business models (otherwise, freemium products will go away). It’s just that I am worried about Google’s intentions, so I’m moving on. Simple.
- Profiling : I’m okay with them mining the data that I choose to make public, not my private data – that’s why I’m weary of Gmail. That’s why I’m weary of very-cool but data-mining note-taking tools such as Springpad.
- Lock-in : In spite of good steps they have taken, I have still not been able to take a full backup of my email from Gmail, why is that, Google? I have tried Thunderbird, Evolution and Outlook to do a full IMAP sync, but the sync always fails. Their IMAP server just won’t let me download more than a hundred emails, and will completely error out after a few tries. If you know how to export a Gmail mailbox containing around 15 folders and 14,210 emails, please let me know. Even Backupify.com hasn’t been able to do it!
- Longevity : I think I’ll prefer a for-fee business for my critical data – because I know the company will be around and it is in their interest to continuously improve the actual product vs. the profiling algorithms to show better ads. For example, I have shifted to Zoho Mail because they show NO ADS even in the free version! Their business model is simple – the basic product is forever free to use, you can pay for more storage and users.
- Overaching : It’s handling of Arunachal Pradesh in Google Maps, it’s deal with the NSA, it’s handling of deletion of music blogs, etc. is just plain bad.
- Boring : If you ask me, there is nothing interesting coming out of Google these days. They’re just expanding ways (Chrome, Android) to make people search more and buying up companies that can be potentially threatening. Even Buzz seems like a love child of Twitter and Facebook. Sure it might be a game changer because of Gmail’s user base, but seriously, what’s interesting or new about it?
- Monoculture : A huge problem I have observed is that people are not willing to adopt any new tool unless it is by Google. And there is a current startup hype in India. I find this direct conflict amusing because if even an average techie in India (e.g. the common person in the service industry, for example) is not willing to give non-Google products a try, how exactly will people be open to use tools made by startups? Pop Quiz: “How many of you have started using a new tool or new service (esp. by a startup) in the past one year and have used it for more than 2 months?” I wanted to switch to give other companies and startups a try.
Phew. I think those were enough reasons to move away from Google, at least for a while.
And, boy, it has been tough. Let’s face it, it’s hard for companies to beat Google when Google makes slick products and gives it away for free.
Here is what my transition looks like:
- Search – The funny thing is I used Google Search only in 2004-2005, started using Yahoo! Search since 2006, and have moved to Bing exclusively since the past 6 months. (free)
- Analytics – Moved to Mint ($30) + Piwik (open source)
- Reader – Moved to Tiny Tiny RSS (open source)
- Feedburner – Moved to the default WordPress feed link + MailChimp for emails (freemium)
- Google Apps – Moved to Zoho for Business ($5 per month)
- Docs – Moved to Zoho Docs which turned out to be way more powerful (free)
- GTalk – Stopped using IM, it was a distraction anyway. (zero)
- Contacts – Exported from Google, stored only on iPhone (free)
- Calendar – Zoho Calendar (free)
- Google Groups – subscribe to RSS feeds of the group (free)
- Maps – Since the map application on iPhone uses Google Maps, no alternative
- Google Alerts – no alternative
- Google Adsense – This is still a todo item, haven’t looked into it yet. I have heard about Komli, Chitika, etc. but yet to investigate.
- Phone – My next phone is probably going to be an Android phone, looks like there is no alternative (I’m tired of having to use Windows just for iTunes, only because I have an iPhone)
As I’m sure you have deciphered, this took some installation of server-side software and some money to make this transition. These were the best alternatives that I came across that suited me.
So far I’ve been very happy about this experiment, because I got to discover and try out new tools and realized that there is so much more cool functionality available out there that I would have never discovered otherwise!
And at the same time, I admire Google even more now (from a startupper’s perspective) because they discovered a business model because of which they are able to give away so much functionality for free, and hence brought more people online.
Update: Thanks to Helen (in the comments below), got to know that Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) wrote about the exact same topic just 2 days ago. Good to know that I’m not alone in my concern!