Back in October, the geeks were crapping their collective shorts in anger at some ill-advised changes coming out of Mountain View. If you’ll recall, Google tweaked Reader and rolled out some crappy apps in what was called the week Google messed up. “We’re leaving Google!” the geeks proclaimed. This sort of “you changed your service, so I’m going elsewhere” bloviating is rather common with social media, so I decided to call the bluff: is it really possible to quit Google? Well, for the past 84 days I’ve been Google-free as part of my Life after Google experiment. That’s twelve weeks without using Google search or any other Google products. I am (almost) completely Google free*…and what an 84 days it’s been.
You see, Google wants to take the social media thunder from Facebook but Google forgets that we didn’t start using Google because we wanted to be social; we started Googling because we wanted the best search results. Facebook has always been about integrated services: we knew that the videos we watched, posts we wrote, and games we played were being tracked to enhance the immersive experience (or at least we should have known). Facebook’s “privacy” agreement has always had scare quotes. But, Google has grown by accretion, slowly purchasing wildly disparate services (like YouTube and Picnik) and developing one-off enhancements in the now defunct Google Labs. We’ve been accustomed to using these services as distinct–almost siloed–entities united by a common Google username and password. But, now, in pursuit of likes, pokes, and +1s, Google has abruptly changed focus. Services are being killed off, interfaces are being redesigned, search results are being impacted, privacy agreements are being rewritten, and the passive voice is being abused in this sentence. At one point in time, search engines like Yahoo, Altavista, and (later) Google were our alternative to walled gardens like AOL and (later) Facebook. Not anymore. As was recently argued on Lifehacker, Google is Facebook is AOL: Google is heading straight towards a walled garden. Next thing you know, Google will be buying out CD manufacturing plants.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with yet another post analyzing Google’s many problems. (At least not today…I’ve got a draft post that pits David Weinberger and Evgeny Morozov against each other in an epic battle of Google-related derp.) Instead, I want to tell you that you can actually survive fairly well without Google. If you’ll indulge me, here is a quick rundown of what I feel are outstanding alternatives to popular Google products. First, the list:
|Google version||New version|
|Browser||Google Chrome||Maxthon or Iron|
|RSS Reader||Google Reader||Netvibes|
|Image Organizer||Picasa||Windows Live Photo Gallery|
|Office Suite||Google Docs||Office Web Apps or Sharepoint|
|Research||Google Scholar||The library, damn it.|
Desktop Web Browsing: Maxthon or Iron
If you’re like me, you fell in love with Google Chrome and never looked back. Fast, stable, and secure, Chrome set the bar for browsers and recently surpassed Firefox in market share. Of course, there’s also the pesky little issue of Chrome tracking your online behavior by default. If you really want to stick with Chrome, at least do yourself a favor and download the Keep My Opt-Outs extension. If you want something that looks like Chrome, but isn’t, I recommend downloading SRWare’s Iron browser, which is simply a version of Chromium without any of the privacy-related problems. Another option is the Maxthon browser: the best browser you’ve never heard of. Not only does Maxthon run the Webkit engine (like Chrome and Safari), but it also runs a Trident engine like Internet Explorer. What does that mean? Well, for starters, you get the same speed and stability of Chrome, but when you run into one of those irritating sites that only works in Internet Explorer, Maxthon can handle it. This is big. How many of you keep an Internet Explorer icon on your desktop just to access your library’s Sharepoint or Exchange servers? To boot, Maxthon offers a built in RSS reader, customizable skins, and tons of interesting tweaks. Actually, the only downside to Maxthon is that it may offer too much customization.
Mobile Web Browsing: Maxthon or Opera
The fact that the mobile browser on Android phones tracks my location is creepy as hell. So, I recommend downloading either Opera Mini or the Maxthon mobile browser. Both offer more options than Google’s browser, both are significantly faster than the native browser, and both sync with their desktop counterparts.
Web-based RSS Feed Reader: Netvibes
I’ve covered Netvibes before, so I won’t spend much time, but it’s a really cool alternative to Reader. You can use it in the exact same way if you’d like, but the personalization options are where it shines. For example, I’ve got my webcomics feeds set to display in a mosaic/thumbnail view. Awesome.
Search: DuckDuckGo, Wolfram Alpha, and Yahoo/Bing
If you stop and think about how you really use search engines, I bet you’re like me: you don’t use the basic Google web search for research. Instead, 90% of your Googling is for something you already know. Here’s an example: A few weeks ago, Khristy and I were cycling through the new releases on OnDemand and trying to figure out what to watch. When we came to a movie we thought might be interesting, I quickly
Googled DuckDuckGo‘ed it and I knew what I wanted: the page on Rotten Tomatoes, the IMDb page, and maybe the Wikipedia article on the movie. In short, I was using the search engine as a federated search across websites I would otherwise have in my bookmarks folder. I wasn’t researching the films. I was searching for links to websites I already knew about and, as I found out a year ago, pretty much all of the major search engines will give you the exact same results for 90% of your searching, albeit in a slightly different order. Google has no monopoly on using search engines as shortcuts. (Incidentally, we wound up watching Water for Elephants, a surprisingly good period drama with excellent camerawork by Rodrigo Prieto and a surprisingly unsparkly Robert Pattinson.)
What Google does have a monopoly on is tracking your search behavior. So, go with a safe alternative like DuckDuckGo that doesn’t filter your results based on some sketchy advertising profile and doesn’t track you around. Try it out for a week or two and you might be surprised at the quality of results. Even better, if you’ve switched to Maxthon, you can manage, search, and compare multiple search engines simultaneously with the browser’s multisearch feature. (It’s really cool. Truest me.)
Image Search: Yahoo Images
I covered this before, too, but Google’s image search is god awful. Really. What’s worse, they’ve removed the ability to filter by license, so if you’re looking for Creative Commons works, you’re out of luck. However, Yahoo! Image Search more than makes up for Google’s failures. Not only is there a prominent way to filter by license, but Yahoo! owns Flickr and it’s six billion photographs.
Office Suite: Office Web Apps
This one is tricky. Google Docs is great, and I’ll probably go back if only because everyone at work uses Google Docs. But, Microsoft’s Office Web Apps is pretty amazing (and both Maxthon and Opera will get you around any Internet Explorer requirements). Basically, Web Apps a suite of browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that seamlessly integrate with your desktop versions. And you get 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage. There is a bit of a learning curve, but, then again, there was with Google Docs, too.
Life after Google
So, there you have it. There are viable alternatives to Google. Now, we can nitpick just how good these alternatives really are and, truthfully, Google’s services really are pretty spectacular. If anything, what this experiment shows is that we should think twice about using Google by default. Think about it, from search to video to email to photos and beyond, most people instinctively go the Google route. If anything, Google is like the Wal-Mart of the Internet. Great prices, great selection, great locations. Yeah, they’ve got their problems, but they’re just so danged convenient. And just as Wal-Mart has defined the shopping experience to the exclusion of local and independent retailers, so to does Google define the Web experience to the exclusion of nifty alternatives. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Honestly, going forward, I’ll be using Google again…and frequently I might add. But, it won’t be by default. Remember, the Internet is a big place: you have options.
(* There are some Google services for which I simply couldn’t find a comparable alternative. YouTube is a good example. Likewise, Google Books is an excellent research tool. I’ve also kept my GMail account active, though it’s only used for setting up and managing accounts on other services…I’ve got Exchange at work and friends/family just use Facebook and Twitter.)