Going Google-less – A Week Without Google

A week ago on my blog, I posted my pledge to go one week without Google.  It was inspired, in part, by the Google/Verizon proposal for the future of high speed and wireless internet that was devised in closed-door meetings, in secret, while the same discussions were being had with the FCC and other major players that Google and Verizon were also a part of.  This sort of self-serving duplicity, as well as serious concerns about the end result for consumers this proposal would have if enacted, put a serious damper on my ongoing Google-love.  How dependent on Google, specifically, was I really, and could I actually live without using a single Google service?  As more and more concern about Google and their agreement with Verizon poured in, I wanted to find out.

I actually started early in my week without Google.  Friday night, after deciding to do this experiment, I set out right away to converting the stuff I use on a day-to-day basis to be without Google.  The first step was Gmail/Google Apps.

I use Google Apps for my primary email address.  While I have a Gmail account, I haven’t used it since getting my own domain name for my blog at jazzsequence.com, and I just forward everything sent to my Gmail address to my jazzsequence address.  (While, technically this could be considered still using Google, I’m not considering forwarded email from an unused email address to be really “using” Google services).  The process of switching my email away from Google Apps was pretty easy, so I had to go one step further to make it more complicated.

I’ve also played with the idea of migrating away from Microsoft Office products in favor of open source projects that support collaboration and open standards.  Switching to OpenOffice is easy (although I am skeptical now that Sun (and, in turn, OpenOffice) was acquired by Oracle).  In fact, last time I had to reformat my computer, I tried to install Thunderbird and use that for email but for some reason I couldn’t get it to play nice with my Google Apps email.  I didn’t have the patience for it and Outlook picked up the right settings right away, so I just gave up reluctantly and have been using Office ever since.  This time I stuck it out, since the Gmail/Google Apps problem wouldn’t be an issue and managed to get Thunderbird to play nice.

The other reason I’ve avoided moving away from Outlook is because I’m hopelessly dependent on the Calendar and Tasks features.  We use these internally at Arcane Palette to send each other projects or tasks for projects to work on and manage our workflow that way.  We’ve tried other project management applications, but using the one built right into Outlook it so much easier than having to log into a third-party application, especially when said application doesn’t necessarily send said emails.  Thankfully, Thunderbird has Lightning, the new Calendar and Task extension by Mozilla.  That’s two down, and that takes care of my email.

Next was switching from Chrome to Firefox.  I’ve been using Chrome since the late beta period, and have grown so accustomed to it that it’s second nature.  The web developer tools have become an invaluable resource when I’m working on a website, and I’ve foregone heaps of integrated functionality in favor of bookmarklets, plastering them all over my bookmark bar.  However, migrating to Firefox was relatively painless as well.  I just needed to export my bookmarks as an .html file and was able to import said .html file directly into Firefox and then move all my bookmarklets to Firefox’s bookmark bar.  I then focused on making Firefox more lightweight by uninstalling some plugins I wasn’t using and installing a couple plugins that would add some of the Chrome functionality I had grown used to, in particular, Taberwocky, which I use primarily to be able to duplicate tabs.  Since I’ve been using Glue, I finally got to install the Glue plugin and experience the web the way Glue wants you to, and I installed Firefox’s personas just for fun (which is Firefox’s version of Chrome’s visual styles).  I use Hootsuite for Twitter, and with Chrome, I was doing this by creating an application window for it, so it runs as its own standalone app.  Mozilla has this, too, in a project called Prism, and I actually like Prism more because it allows you to customize the icon, which Chrome’s application shortcuts don’t do.

I also switched search engines.  This was harder than it sounded.  You don’t realize how used to typing google.com into an address bar you are until you try to do something else.  I also realized I’ve become dependent on Chrome’s auto-fill technique of allowing you to search a site by typing the domain and hitting TAB.  I’ve yet to find something like that in Firefox.  On the other hand, Firefox has Search Engine add-ons for a variety of sites (including Wikipedia, which, along with YouTube and Amazon – both of which have Search Engine Add-Ons – was what I was using most frequently), which made it easy (easier, anyway) to switch over to Bing as my primary search engine.

The setup took me through the weekend, so by Monday I was ready to start my work week without Google.

YouTube was difficult to avoid.  It’s so ubiquitous for video sharing that you can choose to not watch viral videos, or you can suck it up and watch things on YouTube.  YouTube was acquired in 2006 by Google for $1.65billion from a couple of ecstatic developers who built it, and since then, Google has both added advertising to videos and started doing video ads with their AdSense service.  This was one thing I cheated on my Google-less week for, although that’s more a result of the decision of content creators to use YouTube rather than another service like Vimeo.

On Tuesday, I needed to send an invoice to a client.  I paused and thought hard.  PayPal has a higher processing fee, plus I have a bias against them since they screwed me once.  That said, in a lesser-of-two-evils decision, PayPal, at least, isn’t trying to take over the world (or, if not the world, gain more control over the future of the Internet than the government organizations assigned to regulate it and keep it free from corporate interests).  So I put my boycott on PayPal aside and sent out an invoice with a PayPal-linked button rather than a Google Checkout-linked button.  This was probably the hardest switch to make not because PayPal is inherently more difficult but because both companies, in my opinion, are crooked.

I suppose it should be said that I’m addicted to the web developer tools built into WebKit (and therefore Google Chrome), in particular the Inspect Element context menu.  I use it every day and I knew going into this experiment that this would be something I was missing.  I’ve become so accustomed to using Inspect Element that I’d completely forgotten how to use the much more elaborate Web Developer Tools plugin for Firefox (though I still had that installed).  In the end, for web development, I used Safari so I could get the benefit of the Inspect Element option.  To be honest, there was no specific reason for choosing Firefox over Safari as the browser of choice and by Wednesday I started considering just switching.  Most likely it was simply ubiquity and the fact that Firefox was what I was using before switching to Chrome, though, in retrospect, Safari is just as solid.

On Thursday, I realized that the database backups I schedule to automatically send every week to a specific email address weren’t coming.  After a second, I realized why; I never set up the email address when I was moving my mail over to my webhost.  While it’s just as easy to set up mail through your host as it is to set up Google Apps to handle your mail, it’s worth remembering that if you do decide to switch back (or switch any host or email provider), any email addresses you have set up will need to be recreated on the new host.  It’s a simple enough task, but just as easy to forget, especially if you have forward-only addresses like I do.

Another thing you forget about Gmail is how good the junk mail filter really is.  It’s been years since I really thought very much about junk mail.  I get so little of it, that I don’t even notice the problem.  Only after moving my email away from Gmail did I start to notice the junk come in, many times it was the same piece of junk mail.  Outlook has some built-in controls for that (which, of course, I’d forgone in favor of Thunderbird), and Thunderbird does as well, although, for the most part, it relies on you to mark things as spam to learn what to filter and what not to.  Thankfully, many webhosts have server-side spam filtering (using SpamAssassin or something similar), which I was happy to find on my host when I realized that was what was going on and looked for the possibility of a server-side spam filter (note: it wasn’t turned on by default, as they often are not, so if you find yourself inundated by spam, it’s a good idea to see if your webhost has the option and turn it on, if necessary).

The point of this experiment was not to take my one-man boycott and stick it to The Man.  I knew I relied heavily on Google services, and wanted to see how deep the ties were and how difficult it would be to avoid them.  Most people use Google by default, without thinking.  Are we wrong to do this?  Google has not made a secret of taking our information and using it to supercharge their other apps, like AdSense and search.  Facebook does this too.  But the difference between Facebook and Google is that Google is also asking you to host all your documents with them, to use their phones (bundled with their services) with your mobile service, to take control of your calls with their VOIP service, to own your conversations with their messaging service.  Does this mean that behind every corner, with everything you do online, you have a Google bot reading your messages, your emails, your documents, and assimilating that information into their vast grid for future use?  Are we okay with that?

Even putting Google and Verizon’s recent bid to determine the future of broadband and wireless internet aside for a minute, it can’t go without noting that Google is a huge corporation.  They may have started out as two guys in a garage, but those days are long gone.  Have we forgotten that Apple and Microsoft had similar beginnings?  Google isn’t the underdog anymore, they are the behemoth, and they want your data.  Internet pioneer, Richard Stallman, has some choice words on the sorts of cloud computing technology Google has led us toward with Gmail and Apps.

The real meaning of ‘cloud computing’ is to suggest a devil-may-care approach towards your computing. It says, ‘Don’t ask questions, just trust every business without hesitation. Don’t worry about who controls your computing or who holds your data. Don’t check for a hook hidden inside our service before you swallow it.’ In other words, ‘Think like a sucker.’

We can choose to not be a sucker.  We can look for a hook.  There was a time when people distrusted large businesses simply because they were large.  In this economy, where many of the little and smaller companies have crumbled, we should be even more wary of those left standing, not less.  When a company starts making rules for the government, that’s when I start tuning out.

The answer to the main question of the experiment, can you survive without Google, is: yes, of course you can.  Gmail is great, but by no means is it the be-all end-all email solution, and by no means is Gmail’s junk filtering the only answer, either.  Other cloud computing apps should make you wary at the very least – if the world ended tomorrow and those servers went down, would you be okay with loosing that data?  Neil Gaiman mentioned that some documents from 2007 stored in Google Docs were missing and that he may have lost a story.  I find this, for a writer – a bestselling one, at that – to be absolutely unacceptable, and proof that your data is not guaranteed.  And the only way to truly secure your data is to don your tinfoil hat and start keeping hard copies.

We’re so reliant on the web we don’t even think about it.  I don’t retain a printed copy of my tax return unless I absolutely need it.  Why should I?  Printer companies gouge consumers on ink refills for cheap printers enough that I no longer own a printer.  I have a pdf copy and I file electronically.  Personally, I retain all important data on a home server that maintains weekly backups on an external NAS server, but most people don’t.  The point is, we’ve become so used to going paperless that the idea of going back makes us sound like some relic from the 1950s (no offense to relics from the 50s).  Likewise, distrusting cloud computing, Google, Facebook, any company that hordes our data, makes us sound paranoid.

The answer to the followup question to the experiment, will I continue to live without Google services is: probably.  I was dissatisfied with using Firefox for all my browsing, and enjoyed using the Glue extension for Firefox that I was never able to use in Chrome, but as an experiment, I went to Glue in Safari and found an extension there as well.  Which implies there may be other extensions available for Safari that I didn’t know about (although, really, there weren’t many I use daily in Chrome, and one of them is a Google Voice extension).  Moving forward, I plan on switching over to Safari for my browsing as a replacement for Chrome rather than Firefox.

My email is already switched and I have no intention of switching back.  I’m now using free software (free as in freedom as well as free as in beer) to manage my email via Thunderbird, and I’m quite happy with it.  I was already growing apart from Google after my new mobile carrier (Sprint/Nextel, via CREDOMobile) doesn’t support Google Voice entirely, and text messages sent to my Google Voice number forward to my phone even when the setting is disabled to forward texts (as a way to save on individual text messaging charges).  Bing is not as good for search as Google, but it’s passable, and in many cases where I was looking for something specific, a site search gave me the result I wanted.

When I started this experiment, Nico, from Ten Times One, commented on my blog, saying, “Google is good for business.”  As a small business owner, sure, Google helps, but the only Google service I was using as a business was Checkout.  We experimented with AdWords only to find that it was a lot of money for no real result.  I haven’t used up the rest of my $100 credit, and we currently advertise via BuySellAds.  Google will always color how we think about search engine optimization, but Google is trying to enter an enterprise market with Apps where Microsoft has dominated for more than a decade and those types of markets aren’t often subject to radical change.  It will be a steep hill for them to climb to try to sell their wares to corporate businesses.  Even for business, Google is not the only answer, nor, in many cases, the best answer.  And increasingly, their dominance over the advertising market will decrease as Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook become more relevant players.

The first step in changing the world is to change yourself.  I’m not trying to change the world, but it’s also terrifying to me that we let ourselves be subjugated by corporate interests without being aware of it.  So, I encourage you to think about the online services you use, whether they’re Google, Facebook or other, and think about the data you’re giving them.  Could you live without that data?  Could you live without that service?  Could that data be used against you?  Do you trust a multi-billion dollar multi-national corporation with that data, whether it’s a search query or sensitive medical documents?  Does it make any sense at all for a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation to truly have your interests at heart?

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Chris Reynolds is one half of the design team at Arcane Palette Creative Design. He writes in his personal blog, jazzsequence, on subjects like music, technology and social media and shares links, videos, and posts various personal music and writing projects. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Scam Alert: “Testers needed to test the Apple iPad” – testitandkeepit.com

i got an email last night sent from a client we did a website for about a year ago inviting me to become a tester for an Apple iPad.  actually, i got two emails — one sent to each of my main addresses.  The subject line of the email was “Testers needed to test the Apple iPad.” redundancy aside, i was curious — also, skeptical.  it’s a little late in the game for there to be iPad testing; usually testing (and certainly anything calling itself “beta testing”) is conducted before the device is ready to ship — the iPad already has a hard release date.  the only kind of testing that would even be feasible is some kind of user experience testing for the purposes of market research (in which case it wouldn’t matter when the product was released, but it would probably make more sense after the producer got some initial sales figures). barring someone hanging out in your home and following you around as you use the thing, something like that would almost certainly need some special software installed, and it’s been well documented and established that the only software that gets onto an iPad is — like the iPhone or iPod Touch — from the iTunes App Store.  The body of the email had this to say:

Hello [my name],

Your contact “[contact’s email address]” invited you to join our TestitandKeepit program.

At this time we are actively searching for people who will be willing to test the new Apple iPad. The testing period will take only two months, after which you may keep it as compensation.

To see more details and register to our program, follow the link below:

http://www.testitandkeepit.com/1

Thanks,

The TestitandKeepit Team

This immediately made me search for “test it and keep it ” — certainly if this was an established company, their website would be high ranked on a search for their own business name.  and, if it was a scam,  i should see some blog posts or scam reports on such.  the results?  well, i didn’t find the company, or even their website, by searching for “test it and keep it”, but i did find several posts in various different places that gave the impression that it was, in fact, a scam.  most of them, however, were not based on any hard evidence as the authors hadn’t actually gone through all the steps.  it wasn’t until i found this post on the sophos blog from earlier this month that i could see what the take was, summarized in this handy-dandy youtube video.

all of these so far, though, are referencing this as being a facebook scam, and it wasn’t an email (or invitation to join a group) from facebook that sent the invitation i received.  thus prepared, i ventured to the site.  a few things caught my attention early on:

  1. the top navigation links work, sure, but the links to “contact”, “home”, and “rss” links at the bottom of the site don’t link to anything.
  2. while there is what appears to be a newsfeed on the right side of the page, complete with number of comments, none of the “posts” actually link to anything.  neither do the comments.
  3. there is no specific evidence of this group ever conducting a test like this before, other than a mention in the non-functioning news feed
  4. although the company description freely says that they are not directly related to the product manufacturers and are an outside organization called in to select participants for product tests and report back their findings, a company as large as apple would not be very likely to hire an outside organization — especially their policy for extreme secrecy when it comes to new products.
  5. from their about page:

    Our mission is simple:
    “Make life easier for everyone.”

    We offer solutions hassle-free to companies who want their products reviewed. We select participants and we deal with all the paper work, the logistic behind selecting the participants, getting their reviews, etc… Plus we make life easier for all the people who will purchase the product in the future, because of our help, the product will be improved and fixed from its original conceptual bugs or malfunctionning.

    this is the sort of meaningless copy that people who have never been directly involved with product manufacturers or large corporations might believe.  are there companies that get hired by large organizations to test their products?  sure.  but are the primary incentives in hiring such a company a) selecting participants, b) dealing with paperwork, and c) making life easier?  no, they have staff that can handle stuff like that.  would a company like apple hire the “Test It and Keep It Team” based on their company’s description on their about page?  very unlikely.

  6. and then there’s the little matter of grammar.  most people who receive spam on a daily basis know that the easiest way to detect spam and phishing emails from their legitimate counterparts is that, more often than not, the language and grammar in the spam and phishing emails is atrociously bad, riddled with spelling and punctuation errors as well as simple sentence structure errors that any large company’s PR and marketing team would have caught before going to press.  however it’s also widely known that people don’t read, and certainly when it comes to something like this, they are more likely to skim the page. yuo konw taht eamil taht yuo gte wehre lla teh wrods aer splled wrnog and this is to prove that as long as all the letters are there, it doesn’t matter what order they come in in terms of being able to read it?  well, that just goes to show how much we can skim and not even realize we’re doing it, but anyone somewhat trained in picking out errors like this will see these things as glaringly obvious.  certainly no company trying to impress the likes of apple would let such mistakes be published on their website.

none of these things looked too promising for this little site, but out of pure curiosity, i decided to see what happens when i try to sign up.  like the facebook version, the signup is split up into 3 parts.

step 1 — submit your name and email address (interestingly, though, the name fields are labeled as “Name” and “Last Name” — usually, when first and last name are required, they are at least listed as “first name” and “last name”)

step 2 — invite all your friends.  since they can’t do this automatically directly on facebook, they’ve built in a method by which you can invite all of your friends from various different networks simply by entering your username and password!  (because i love giving out my username and password to shady companies.)  presumably this mass emails all your friends on various different networks with a message similar to what i received trying to get more people to sign up for step 3.

step 3 — complete registration.  you might think that this would be like a submit button or send you a validation key or something like that.  in fact, this button redirects you to a completely different site, online reward center (i am providing the link for reference purposes only, submit your information at your own risk).  at first glance, this looks exactly like those other sites where you go through 20 pages of offers and surveys to get a free iPod, only to come to the last 2 or 3 pages which require you to sign up for 10 different trial offers in order to receive your iPod.  no good will come of these sites — trust me, i’ve tried.  at one point in time i had heard a story of someone i knew personally who had set up a fake email address and gone through the steps and did actually get their ipod which led me to try it myself.  i chickened out at giving out my credit card number, though, so the only thing i got was spam and added onto Camel’s list for product samples and coupons.  i don’t smoke, but at some point there was an option to choose which cigarettes i preferred, marlboro or camel, and neither wasn’t an option.  as a sidenote, i googled “online reward center” too, and found several entries on the scamminess of that, too, including several questions to Yahoo! Answers to the effect of “is the free stuff you get here for real?” to which the answers were “no,” “no,” and “sometimes if you’re lucky and prepared to get a lot of spam.”

so here’s what i think: this started out as a facebook scam.  ultimately, though, it got banned from facebook from so many complaints (but not before racking up thousands upon thousands of fans).  after that, either a copycat scam popped up, or the same guys with a different catch who, rather than harvesting cell phone numbers, is getting commission on all the crap you sign up for on those survey things — a gimmick that is almost as old as the internet itself (and more than likely based on those publisher’s clearing house sweepstakes offers).

the moral here is: if it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck, no matter how much you want that duck to be a free iPad.

also: as a further side note — i contacted the person from whom i received the email originally, including the link to the sophos post.  his response was that he recieved it but did not sign up for anything.  after doing a twitter search, it looks like possibly this scam is even more insidious than it seems, exploiting gmail contact lists to get email addresses.

Update 3-31-2010:

For anyone who’s signed up inadvertently and are interested in “what are my risks” read this from the scam warners forum.  The short response is: don’t give anyone your credit card information over the phone.

If I briefly describe the Florida holiday scam it’ll give you an idea how this can turn into a very shady business.

There are many ways used by marketing companies to collect people’s details. Many sites offer money off coupons and they insist you enter personal details including your phone number. They also have booths at country fairs, race meetings or exhibitions with entries to a free competition for a holiday (of course, there’s no holiday). They then sell these details on to a boiler room with one purpose only – to get your credit card details. They ring up telling you that you’ve won a holiday and that you just need to pay some small deposit, and it’s pressure tactics that you wouldn’t believe. They then clear your account.

It isn’t just spamming.