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Alternatives to the Google monoculture

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I’ve never been a heavy user of all things Google. The search engine was what I valued most (until they forced that horrid “instant” thing on users), followed by a Gmail account I set up so I could read a single Google group. But over the years, I’ve been growing increasingly uneasy with using Google. Partly because they want to track everything you do, and partly because they want to be the internet. But I repeat myself.

Monocultures are unhealthy, whether it’s a crop or an informational system, and privacy is a fundamental necessity to democratic institutions. The Internet is arguably one of the most democratic places ever to have existed, but tracking users – not to mention forcing them to use a government-accepted name – threatens that. On the monoculture front, if all things Google went away, here’s what we’d lose. I don’t know how likely it is that ALL Google services would fall over at once, but bits of them do crash from time to time, and sometimes your data is irretrievable. Google’s customer service is notoriously nearly nonexistent, so good luck getting help.

When Google+ launched, and I saw how Google was handling user names (badly), I decided I had had enough, and went looking for alternatives to the various aspects of Google services, as well as tools to improve my privacy and security when using Google – and other websites. Because Google is not the only company that wants to know what you’re doing so it can sell ads using your data.

Here’s what I found. It is not comprehensive, and some of the services may be out of date. I will, from time to time, add additional links to the end as I find other people writing about this topic.

Alternatives to Google services

Calendar: 30 Boxes is a calendar that is iCal compatible, allows sharing, and has a really super nice way to add events. (OH MY GOD I loathe the Google calendar event-entry form!) More options listed here, and at least one of the online document-sharing apps listed later also includes a calendar.

Maps: For just plain mapping, not direction-finding, Open Street Map is pretty awesome. Mapquest has a direction-finding service that uses the Open Street Map. Regular MapQuest still exists, not to mention Yahoo, and Bing, and Rand McNally. (I know Google has added all sorts of interesting functionality to its maps that probably don’t exist elsewhere, but for simple “show me where X is” or “Plot a route” matters, there are several options, though I don’t know how stalkery any of them are. Yahoo and Bing? Probably pretty stalkery.) More alternatives here, with brief descriptions.

Search: Duck Duck Go makes a point about not sharing your searches with anyone, (link also explains how their https version works, and what https searching does NOT do) and another about not filtering – I’m sorry, I meant “personalizing” – your searches. I highly recommend reading all of the site’s info on privacy and security, because it is relevant well beyond Duck Duck Go. You can choose a variety of different settings for privacy and color and other things (there’s a dropdown next to the search bar when you have a list of results, and a link from their homepage under the search box). They also have an immense list of ways to do interesting search tricks: https://duckduckgo.com/goodies.html and https://duckduckgo.com/bang.html

Scroogle runs your search through Google, but does some magic to ensure that Google doesn’t link your search results to you (Scroogle doesn’t keep your info, either). Scroogle also has an encrypted version: “SSL is used to hide your search terms from anyone who might be monitoring traffic between your browser and Scroogle’s servers.” ixquick also does not store personal info (IP addresses) or share search info, although since they claim they are the “only” search engine to do that, and that is clearly untrue, well. Read this about SSL and searching. Dogpile – remember back in the old days, when some search engines existed that ran search results through multiple other engines, and then gave you that compiled list? That’s what Dogpile does. Here’s another interesting list, focused on different sorts of functionality. Worth a read.

Aw, even Altavista, my search engine of choice at the time Google was a wee baby search engine, is still around! (Owned by Yahoo now. BOO.)

Additional alternatives to other Google stuff, including online documents, mail, images, etc. Zimbra and Zoho look pretty good for documents (and have additional officey features). I can definitely vouch for Thunderbird (my mail client of choice for years and years and years – and yes it can import Gmail), 30 Boxes, Netvibes (best feed reader I’ve found), Flickr (vs Picasa aka Google Photos), and OpenOffice.org – though these days, you may prefer the current version called LibreOffice, a fork of OpenOffice that happened when Oracle bought Sun, and some former Sun people wanted to ensure the software continued to survive and evolve.

This looks like a really good spreadsheet alternative.

Of course, some of these are NOT browser-based (Thunderbird and OpenOffice/Libra Office), but many of them are. Thunderbird also exists in a “portable” version that you can put on a flash drive and carry with you everywhere (ditto Firefox and a whole bunch of other things). I am most excited about the several alternatives to Google Docs, especially since Google is being a butthead (understandably so, sort of) about browser compatibility for its apps, so I guess my next move is to give those things a spin.

Other tools for interesting kinds of online collaboration: Stixy, which has a neat graphical interface you can test out right on their homepage (oooh, it even has a calendar!), and Vyew, which does live conferencing, among other things.

Mail: Well, AOL still exists. *ducks* *runs* *hides* Also, FastMail offers free and paid email, including a paid account that is a mere $5/year and seems to offer pretty good functionality for that (the free account is probably too constrained for most things, though hey, it IS free, so if you want an additional account somewhere else . . . ). Not an email provider per se, Fuser claims it makes it easy to manage your email, Facebook, Twitter, and even MySpace (and maybe LinkedIn and Friendster), from one handy login. (I haven’t tried it. Netvibes also lets you put Twitter and FB streams into your dashboard thingy.) There are many other free or low-cost email providers out there, but I haven’t done a lot of research in that area.

So much more: one more list of alternatives to various and sundry Google things, like Analytics and Alerts and Checkout and on and on and on, some already mentioned, many not. Note that this list is 2 years old; some of the services listed may no longer exist.

I realize that the one thing these alternatives cannot replace is the integration of everything into a single login, with everything accessible therein. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your preferences for convenience and all-eggs-in-one-basketness versus privacy and data security.

Improving browser privacy and security

Check out the list at the bottom of this page from Duck Duck Go. It contains links to classics like AdBlock and NoScript as well as additional useful advertising-banishers and anti-trackers like Ghostery and Beef Taco and HTTPS Everywhere (Ghostery and Beef Taco – as well as TACO in the Abine suite – prevent advertisers and other services that are using embedded stuff in web pages from tracking your info – unless you let them, and you may wish to; Ghostery’s list of sites that it will block include many advertisers as well as webstat collectors like Awstats and WordPress’s version of the same, plus various other less awful services). Plus other things! Go look.

The Better Privacy plugin will handle special kinds of cookies, called “locally stored objects” (often created by Flash), that are not managed within your browser, that are, in fact, designed to get around normal cookie management tools. Read more about this here, or run terms like “super cookie” or “flash cookie” through your favorite search engine.

If you want to use Google services with less tracking by Google, take a look at the Google sharing plugin.

Keep in mind that, even if you disable all cookies and other tracking devices, your browser may have a unique fingerprint, through which you can be tracked even if you disable cookies – and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to manage that.

Experiences of other people

A series of posts talking about migrating from Google services.

A post with instructions about migrating from several G services. It is not easy – or even possible! – to actually close some Google accounts.