A bit of a side topic for the LiSC blog but may be of interest. This is all true to my experience, however if you have any suggestions/corrections please let me know.
At the end of last year I had a particularly bad user experience around Google’s continuing drive to integrate its services. Specifically, I made the mistake of disabling my Google Plus account, since I rarely used it. The punishment from Google was swift but unexpected – all the contacts were deleted from my Android phone. Now, I don’t think Google did this out of mean spirit, but it is a direct result of their integration. At some point, I’d allowed Google to control my Contacts on Android. Some years later, GMail’s contact system was integrated with Google Plus. Therefore, when I deleted my account the change cascaded through all Google products I used on a daily basis. This utterly destroyed the usefulness of my phone, and demonstrated to me the dangers of creeping service integration. I’d been dissatisfied with a lot of Google’s decisions around pushing Google Plus, like many others. For example, I used to use a shared Picasa Web Albums account with my family to have a private online photo space. Google Plus integration forced me to use my GMail account and broke this (We’ve moved to Smugmug). There was also the Youtube fiasco (that they continue to push). The deletion of my contacts was the final straw – I immediately made the decision to stop using Google – to go on a diet, and temporarily remove them from my life.
It has been 3 months now, and somewhat surprisingly I’ve managed reasonably well, considering I used Google for everything (much like most people in LiSC and the wider tech industry). Obviously the choice is not for everyone, but control over your own data is certainly the next digital battleground, and monolithic tax-evading corporations are definitely not on your side, despite all the cutesy fonts and carefully manicured friendly image. Here’s a few easy bits and hard bits of the journey:
- The easiest: Firefox is still an excellent web browser. It used to have a reputation of being a bit bloated, but is much better these days. I don’t miss Chrome at all. Not a bit. Especially the bit where everything I type in the address bar goes straight to the Google servers.
- DuckDuckGo is a decent search engine. I realise now that 95% of my searching is just as a shortcut – e.g. “wiki Rude Dog and the Dweebs“. It has some of the nice integration that Google search has for different kinds of results, but using 3rd parties (dictionary: “define capricious“, maps: “hout bay“, calculator: “42 * 3^3“). However, for the 5% of difficult searches, DuckDuckGo still can’t compete – especially with searches for badly remembered phrases from old papers I once read, for example.
- Fastmail is a fantastic email provider. Yes, I now pay for email, which sounds ridiculous, but no, I don’t regret it. The experience is just as good as GMail if not better – it is cleaner, quicker, has no ads (obviously) and the strict implementation they use means it integrates with every email program wonderfully. However, the web client is so fantastic I just use that. I use K9 Mail for mobile, which is also very good.
- OpenStreetMap has come a long way – the last I saw of it, Lincoln just had a few hand-drawn roads but now the coverage is perfect.
The hard bits:
- Google Scholar is a fantastic resource for academics. I’m yet to find anything that can compete, so have to make an exception here. It also works just perfectly without logging in. Mendeley and the likes are good, but Scholar is so great at the deep search. (any alternatives let me know!). Last year I predicted Google Scholar would eventually be shut down by Google as it isn’t a core product, and the accidental ensuing panic among HCI researchers shows how much this would impact academics in this field at least.
- Google Calendar: There just isn’t a great online replacement. I use a physical one now. It works, but makes shared organisation a bit more awkward (I have to tell people when I am available, for example).
- Google Chromecast: This is really a nice bit of kit, and immensely convenient for watching Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc at home. You don’t have to log in to Google Plus to use it – yet. The day that happens it gets disconnected.
The hardest bit:
- Android. You don’t realise how deep Google’s claws reach until you try to use an Android device without it. It is possible – Android is open source and there are many many branches and forks that work very well (I use Omni), but the ecosystem is dominated by Google.
Consider this: the vast majority of Android apps are *only* available via the Google Play store. I was willing to make a concession here, however it is impossible to install the Google Play Store without also installing Google Maps, Youtube, GMail and Google Hangouts, and having a unified Google account permanently installed in your device. No deal.
I did install the Amazon App Store, which is fine but tailored to Kindle products (and also generally more expensive than the Play Store). It did allow me to get a legit version of the Facebook app, for example.
For app developers, especially those who make free apps, it is odd that you are usually forced to have a Google account in order to download their software, given that the Android platform has a neutral distributable format (APK files) that doesn’t require a “store” wrapper at all. Even worse is that given the lack of availability, hundreds of shady characters have published modified versions of these apps to fill the market demand.
Given the presumption that everyone has Google Play on their device, I regularly get treated to error messages when I click on some “download our great app” link. However, there are several stars that shine out here that make the raw APK file available to everyone – Firefox (again, fantastic work on the app), K9 Mail, the Amazon Store and my favourite – the Humble Bundle (who are effectively my only source of commercial Android games now). In addition, I’ve had surprisingly excellent luck emailing developers directly, and asking for the APK files. Usually people have fallen into the trap of presuming all Android users have Google accounts, and are very good about fixing that (there is no reason a free app APK can’t be just left on the web).
What would make me use Google again? Easy – different logins for different services, in different silos. I want my Youtube account separate from my Google Plus account separate from my GMail separate from my Google Play Store. That’s all. The integration is absolutely of no benefit for me. Every aspect of the continuing integration has hurt me as a user and has driven me away as a customer.
I went into my “Google Diet” thinking it would be temporary, for a month or so, but I’ve fallen into a Google-free pattern now, and am perfectly happy. At the very least, it has been a valuable experience to realise just how integral the Internet is to my daily life, and just how many of the variety of services I use belonged to Google. I’m that much more cognizant about my online activity now, and even if you are happy to have all your data collated and analysed by Google (which is fine), hopefully at least this post will remind you just how often that really happens. Google really do make some of the world’s best services and products – I just wish the cost was not quite so high.