Strangely enough, purchasing an Android phone has led me to decide that it’s time to say goodbye to beloved but untrusted Google. I’ve used Google for many years. I really like the services they provide to end users, particularly GMail, Calendar, Blogger, Picasa, Reader, Maps, and of course the search engine–plus several others to lesser degrees. An uncomfortably large portion of my private life is detailed in emails, appointments, photos, driving directions, and reading habits–all stored on Google’s servers. My public life is there too, via Blogger.
Actions speak louder than words, and Google’s actions over the past couple of years have made it very clear that, though I am a user of Google’s services, I am definitely not their customer, but rather the commodity that they analyze, collate, and sell to their real customers. I’ve understood this relationship all along of course, but for many years it seemed benign. I’m not saying that Google is evil or anything like it. They’re simply a for-profit corporation, and they make their money by selling targeted ads, which is to say, they make their money by–indirectly–selling the information about me that I willingly provide to them. It’s time to start moving my life off of servers where I am the commodity, and onto ones where I am, very clearly and explicitly, the customer.
Which is another way of saying that it’s time to start paying for the services I use.
Since I use many of Google’s services, and most of them are as good as you could ask for, replacing them is not a simple task. And, since I’ve used them for many years, it is made more complicated by the sheer amount of data that needs to be moved off–if it can be moved off.
Update 10/10/2012: Overall, the move away from Google has been positive. Services that seemed hard to give up have, over time, been replaced by better options. Considering Google’s hard push into social tracking with their Circles service, I am happy to be largely out of their clutches.
Here are the blow-by-blow details of the transitions, listed by service, and color-coded by ease of transition: green for painless, transitioning to red for significant hassle or problems.
I Googled around a bit to find a replacement for Google, and I found one that I’m pretty happy with: DuckDuckGo. DDG uses results from other search engines, adds a bit of smarts and anonymization on top, and there you go. It returns results that are as good or better than Google, it is fast, and it can be added as the default search engine on most browsers (Safari being a notable exception–it’s doable, sort of. But there’s an extension that adds a DDG search field in a control bar at the top, so good enough.) I’m very happy with DDG, and its odd little !features. Easy enough, and done.
Update 10/10/2012: DDG is now unquestionably my search provider of choice. It’s great to be able to type in an address followed by “!maps” or a particularly tricky search request that really needs Google followed by “!g”, rather than having to hunt around on a menu bar to switch to the mode I need; it makes things go faster. I still use Google search when I need it, but usually I don’t.
Moving from GMail is very much a work in progress. Many of my friends, colleagues, and companies that I do business with have my GMail address. And GMail is an excellent product that I really like. I can use it on any computer with a web browser, the search function is extremely useful, and the interface is clean and intuitive. With full IMAP support, I’ve plugged several of my email client apps into it. Here is the process so far:
- Find a replacement for GMail. For this, I turned to Tiger Technologies, which provides email along with website hosting, all for a very reasonable price. I’ve been very happy with their web hosting, so I hoped that their email service would be equally good, and it is. It’s not GMail, but it’s close enough. There’s a web-based client provided which looks and acts somewhat like GMail. The search feature isn’t as good, but is adequate. There’s full IMAP support. Plus, I’m already paying for it. Good enough.
- Stop using GMail. I now mostly do this. In the sense that I started by logging into GMail and setting it to forward all incoming mail to my replacement address, and after that, I switched over to using the replacement service. I assume that this really means “store and forward”–that Google is still keeping a hidden copy of every email they forward, and using it for analysis and sales. But it keeps me from missing any important emails during the transition period. And, to be clear, I don’t currently have any plans to actually turn off the GMail account completely. I’ll keep it up and forwarding. I just won’t use it any more.
- Start using the replacement service. Which I now do. I’ve added my replacement account to all of my clients, and stopped using GMail at all. It hasn’t been painful so far. It may be painful when I really really need to find that email from two years ago that I can barely remember what the subject line said or how I phrased the contents, which GMail is so good at.
- Advertise the replacement. I’m doing this in stages. I started with the commercial emails. To do this, I logged into every corporate account I have (cable TV, car insurance, etc., etc., etc…) and updated my email address with them. That was actually a bit more of a hassle than I expected; some companies treat your email address as the primary identifier for your account, so changing it is a big deal. Now comes friends and colleagues–telling them that I have a new email address–which I am doing via the “vacation” feature in GMail, which somehow seems fitting.
- Move all of the stored emails off of GMail. At first I thought this was going to be a complicated thing to do. But then I decided that, for older emails, I don’t really need to have them convenient, just reachable. They don’t need to be at my fingertips at all times, they just need to be archived in an electronic box in my electronic basement. In other words, it’s good enough to have them stored on my computer at home (and backed up, of course). I wouldn’t need to transfer or forward them from one online email service to another, I’d just need to download them to my computer.
- To do this, I used Thunderbird. I chose Thunderbird because: It stores email messages in an industry-standard non-proprietary format. It’s free. It’s easy to use. It has full POP3 and IMAP support so it can download the emails one way or another. And, most importantly, it has a “work offline” mode, which causes it to download a copy of every single email and store all of them.
- I installed a fresh copy of Thunderbird on my computer, set it up to access my GMail account (which is very easy to do nowadays, since Thunderbird comes with GMail settings pre-rolled), and changed the folder it uses for email storage to one that I could find, rather than it’s default folder buried deep and obscurely in its own directories. I then told Thunderbird to sync all of the “folders” in my GMail account for offline use. This caused it to download every single email from GMail. Which took a while. But it did eventually finish. I told it to sync again, just to be safe. No more emails downloaded, good; it got them all. I then poked around at random in several places to make sure that the emails I expected to be there were, in fact, there. And they were. And then ran a backup, so they’re all copied to two different disks. All good.
- I then discovered that Thunderbird had downloaded almost everything, but had not downloaded any attachments. A quick DDG search revealed a Thunderbird support page which indicated that setting mail.server.default.mime_parts_on_demand to false would cause everything to be downloaded. So, start from scratch, just to be sure… lots of downloading… random checks of both messages and attachments… and everything looks good.
- Finally, I just need to delete the old emails off of GMail. Since I’ve told GMail to forward all new emails to my replacement account, there aren’t any new emails to deal with, just the old ones from before I made the switch. 8800 of them. Select all, select all 8800, move to Trash, empty Trash. And they were gone. That was a stressful–but quick–last step.
Moving from Calendar has been more challenging than I expected. Firstly because I use it more than I would guess. It’s one of those “set and forget” services. Put in someone’s birthday, set for yearly auto-repeat, done. Calendar takes care of the rest. Plus it now has the schedules for all my favorite sports teams. I have yet to find anything out there that really competes with it; surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any WordPress modules that add a private calendar with email reminders; most of them just provide a fancy way to display the dates you blogged on. Apple’s MobileMe (or iCloud?) calendar comes close. I may switch to it. For now, I’m using a hacked-up version of phpScheduleIt installed on my website for now. It’s not great, but it does give me a place for my personal appointments and reminders, and I can get to it from anywhere. I’m continuing to use Google Calendar for my sports reminders.
Update 10/10/2012: It ends up that in the long run, moving away from Google Calendar has been a huge blessing. Now my personal and work calendars are compatible with each other, and I can use the calendar clients on my work PC, Mac at home, Android phone, and iPad to check all of my calendars at once. The only thing that prevented doing that in the past was that Google Calendar didn’t “play nice” with all of the clients.
Blogger has been a surprisingly easy and satisfying service to switch away from. The very first thing I tried worked very well. Since I already was using Tiger Technology as a website provider, I simply went to the configuration page for my website, clicked the button to add a WordPress blog, gave it an equivalent name to my Blogger blog, and a few seconds later, there it was. I then repeated the process for my two other blogs, and there they were. Of course, none of these new blogs had any content. But it turns out that there’s a WordPress plugin that imports existing blogs into a WordPress blog. The plugin can import Blogger blogs, and it worked very quickly and very well for me; it copied over everything, even comments left by readers, and it preserved all of the dates. (I had already copied over my smallest blog by hand before I discovered the plugin, but I used it for the other two.) All that was left was to choose a new theme for each blog (which I’d wanted to do anyways). WordPress has many, many options for themes.
I’ve used WordPress in the past, and found that it had a lot of features, but could be a pain to get working happily, and was a bit…unique…in the way it did some things. Those days are past. WP is now just as easy to use as Blogger, and it gives you much more control when you want to tweak things a bit. I now enjoy blogging more than I did using Blogger, because I don’t feel hamstrung by Blogger’s limitations.
I’ve deleted my Blogger blogs, and spent some time updating my older blog posts with more pictures and links…something I kept planning to do under Blogger, but never got around to it, mostly because I knew it would be a bit frustrating. Happy trails.
Update 10/10/2012: Still very happy with the move. No regrets. WP is great, and has a zillion more options than Blogger did.
I was primarily storing pictures in Picasa because that’s where Blogger stored them. Once I ditched Blogger, I deleted the pictures from Picasa. YMMV.
Update 10/10/2012: Still very happy with the move. No regrets. This wasn’t a big deal for me, since I haven’t ever been one to put a lot of pictures online.
Bad news here. Reader is darn hard to replace. There used to be some pretty decent competitors, but it is a small market, and Google Reader drove the others out of business. There are a few DIY alternatives that you can install on your webserver, but the ones I’ve tried have clunky interfaces and non-intuitive rules for marking items as read. There are platform specific RSS readers that are as good or even better than Reader, but then I’d give up the “use it anywhere” quality that Reader shares with all of Google’s services. So far, I haven’t found a reasonable alternative, and I use Reader enough that I’m not willing to give it up cold turkey.
Update 10/10/2012: I ended up writing my own RSS feed reader, which I tuned towards running on low-powered hardware with a small screen (like my Android phone). I emulated the features from Google Reader that I liked, and dropped the rest. This isn’t an option for everyone, but in the end, worked out well for me. As a result, I don’t miss Google Reader at all.
Um. Yeah. I’ve tried using Bing Maps. Good for some things (like giving driving directions that cross the Alaska-Canada border; something that’s very hit-or-miss in Google Maps). But really, there’s no replacement for Google Maps that I’m aware of, at least not yet. So, for now I log out from the Google mothership before using them. Weak sauce, I know.
Update 10/10/2012: I very rarely use Google Maps nowadays. The only use for it I still have is when I need to share a map with others, and they expect it to be on Google Maps. Other than that, I really don’t miss it. I’ve found that Bing Maps is actually better for routing cross-country trips, and the Waze app is much better for around-town directions, as it includes live info on accidents, speed traps, and other transient situations that neither Google Maps nor Bing Maps are really designed to handle.