The problem with Google+

There’s a dilemma inherent in using any new social network in a market already saturated with social networks.  Unless all existing social networks are integrated into some massive conglomerate, there is no way to effectively replace one with another one. 

For example, much as I hate Facebook, I still go there.  Why?  Because I have friends and family who use it.  They aren’t going to not use it.  I could try to drag them over to another network, but to what end?  It’s not likely I will be able to convince everyone to make the switch.  This forces me to just suck it up and use the system, even though I don’t want to and don’t even like it all that much.

Now that the Great Wall of Google+ has been torn down, and Apps users can finally use it, I find that I want to use Google+.  I have no idea why this is.  Maybe it’s just the novelty, the new-social-network smell.  Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting so long and I’m going to make use of it, dammit.  Maybe it’s the fact that the interface hasn’t (yet) been crapped up by all sorts of stuff I don’t want (live updating stream locked in the sidebar atop a new, locked-in friends list? No and no, thank you).  It could also be because it has insidiously inserted itself into everything I do; even though I don’t use Gmail, I can’t get away from the dark gray plusbar at the top of Google Reader or the ubiquitous +1 icons in search results.  Whatever the reasons, I feel the compulsion to go back, which leaves me with a problem.

Two problems actually.

Three problems, if truth be told.

Those problems being: Facebook, Google+ and Diaspora*.  They all do the same thing in more or less the same way.  I can pretty much knock Diaspora* off the list because – though it was a wonderful experiment in openness and creating a Facebook alternative that could be hosted by anyone (sort of) anywhere (that supports Ruby) – the long delay before the alpha was ready for the public gave Google more than enough time to get all the things right that Facebook got wrong (which more or less makes Diaspora* and Google+ identical – acquisition?).  That still leaves two problems: Google+ vs. Facebook.  I’d love to give up Facebook for good, but that’s not going to happen without a mass Facebook exodus (which is also not going to happen).  Therefore I find myself bouncing between two social networks which is absolutely ridiculous (mostly because in neither case is there anything particularly new and/or interesting happening – my Google+ stream being too new and fresh, not yet overrun by stuff I don’t care about – and Facebook being, well, Facebook).

As good as Google+ may be, it’s never going to beat Facebook (at least, not in the sense that it will overtake and replace Facebook — the way Facebook did to MySpace).  Facebook isn’t going anywhere.  Since Google is also not going anywhere, the best they could do would be to find some way to merge the two.  Not necessarily by buying Facebook or doing a direct conglomerate – I’m thinking more along the lines of an RSS feed, an alternative stream, and a way to use Google+ as a Facebook client.  It’s dangerous territory.  It would be easy to just import all the same data that sent us (well, me) running from Facebook with a myriad of updates about virtual farms being maintained by people I barely knew in high school and former co-workers.  Google+ is already the cool kids hangout; to maintain this, they’d need some way of allowing you to subscribe to Facebook feeds for people you want to follow, but not a direct import of all your Facebook friends.  Because, let’s face it, if there’s any reason we’d give up Facebook it’s because of post-Friending remorse – suddenly being sorry that you clicked Accept on that friend request from someone you hadn’t seen or heard from in 15 years. 

Being able to subscribe to Facebook friends via Google+ would also allow us to be much better stalkers, hiding behind yet another layer of anonymity.  And really, that’s what social networks are really about, isn’t it?  Instead of “friend requests” Facebook should just call it like it is.  Suzie has requested to be a voyeur.  Do you accept her voyeurism request?  If we’re going to use the internet to live vicariously through the lives of people we never see IRL, we should at least be honest about it. 

Oh, right, I was talking about Google+…The best part of Google+ is being able to say +1 to something in a totally non-ironic way.  #win.

Update: Okay, so if you use this Chrome extension, you can get your Facebook feed (and Twitter feed, if you really wanted) in your Google stream. Not a perfect solution, exactly, but it’s more or less what I was asking for so problem solved. For now.

Why are Google Apps users treated like second-class netizens?

Google+: Great Walled Garden
Google+: Great Walled Garden
Original photo by Neil D'Cruze

Hey Google.  Remember me?

I was there when you launched Gmail.  I got one of those first beta invites a couple of weeks after you launched the platform.  I immediately dropped my Hotmail account and switched everything over from a crazy [email protected] (at the time it was fibonacci_jazz), to a more professional sounding address using my initials and last name @gmail.com — then, a symbol of l33tness.

When you released Gtalk, I was all over it.  I downloaded the client, and it is still the main messaging platform I use, eschewing frilly and ridiculous, ad-ridden messengers like MSN Messenger, AIM, and Yahoo!.

When Apps was first released to the public, we all thought it was cool, even if we didn’t know exactly what we’d do with it.  Moving everything to the cloud was a hard pill to swallow, but swallow it we did, and started sharing documents across the interwebs.

Since then, our relationship has gotten a little rocky.

You launched Google Apps for Business.  Okay, so you’re trying to take on Microsoft — a lofty and noble goal, even if it is a bit delusional.  No one is going to dump years worth of Microsoft Office in favor of a free, web-based platform, surely.  And you created a free version for us normal folk.  We weren’t entirely sure why we would need Google Apps on our own domain — outside of being able to use a Gmail interface for our own personal domain, which was pretty cool — but we all signed up anyway.  We wanted to be part of the cool club, and just saying “I’m using Google Apps for my domain” was pretty cool.

But you shit on us.  And I don’t mean that figuratively.

Google Apps for personal domains was always last to receive the latest and greatest updates you were making to Google Apps for everyone else, and that included the improvements you made to Gmail.  Sure, you added an option to be on the bleeding edge of updates.  Later.  After the resentment of having been slighted set in.

Then, once we’d gotten settled in our new Apps domain, and started using our Apps email address for everything Google under the sun (and I mean everything, because we were still drinking the Kool-Aid), you pulled the big whammy on us.  This migration bullshit.  WTF, Google?

Okay, I get it.  I’ve worked in the IT industry and I understand the challenge of moving a bunch of users from an old platform to a new one.  But to us, it’s not really a new platform, is it?  It’s the same stuff we’ve used for years.  It’s the address we’ve had since the day we signed up for Google Apps for our domain and have used for every other stinking Google product including freaking YouTube.  Conflicted account, you say?  Conflicted how exactly?  It wasn’t conflicted when I set up a Blogger site to test templates I was developing.  It wasn’t conflicted when I was saving stuff in Google Docs on jazzsequence.com.  To us, this is just some crazy bullshit you made up.

From a tech perspective, it’s no better.  So you need to migrate thousands, if not millions of users over to the next generation Google platform.  So what?  Figure out the migration process and make it work.  Do this first, before you launch a new product, before you tell everyone that they will lose everything and need to create a new personal Gmail account, which is just bullshit.  A new Gmail account?  That’s the reason we set up Google Apps on our domain to begin with — so we didn’t have to use a Gmail (or Hotmail, or Yahoo) address.  How and when am I going to use another email address, and why would I want to have to switch accounts every time I need to use that stuff?  You’ve got 28,000+, highly trained, incredibly brilliant, motivated, well-paid employees and you’re telling me not one of them had any insight into making the transition more painless?

But the real slap in the face, Google, and the reason I am writing to you, is your latest insult: Google+.  When you first launched those +1 buttons, I was right there with you.  Yeah, I said, share content with friends and family, affect their search results and show them things that I think are cool — sounds awesome.  And I started using the +1 button and trying to figure out how I could add it to my website and the sites I built.  That is, until Google+.  All of a sudden, the +1 button required me to log in, and  I couldn’t log in because I was using an Apps account.  I’m surely not going to switch accounts every time I want to +1 something, and why bother getting set up on a new social network when I’m going to have to dump that account anyway if/when you do let the Apps people in.  This whole switching accounts thing is bullshit anyway — I thought you were going to make that easier.  Why can’t we, I don’t know, merge accounts?  Multiple email addresses and profiles that all feed into the same master address/profile that works on everything.

I can’t tell you how many invites I’ve gotten to Google+ at this point.  I’d love to be able to use it.  But you screwed me, Google.  I refuse to log into a crap account that only exists because you forced me to make it so I can get access to your pretty walled garden network and ogle over how glorious and white it is.  I’m not going to bother setting up circles and following people until I know I can do it with the account I actually use.

We’ve had a rough couple of years, Google.  My brief period of alone time from you made me realize how dependent I am upon a number of your products.  But I can’t buy into your bullshit anymore.  The “don’t be evil” thing — maybe it meant something a long time ago, but now it’s a joke.  You are evil, fueled by the profits you reap from harvesting all our personal data.  There’s some pockets of good in there, I’m sure, like the developers who work on the products you deploy that people can actually use, but I know you’re taking my Chrome browser and click history and storing it in your datacenters so you can feed me better ads (which I then block with a Chrome extension).

When Apps users are let into Google+, we’ll all be raving about how wonderful it is, I’m sure, but until then you’ve just made yourself look like an ass, Google.  Locking out the very people who were very probably some of the earliest of early adopters, people who have used Apps for years and stuck with it.  Don’t get me started on how badly you’ve nerfed Groups, and how Groups for Apps is a joke now.  Fine, whatever, I have to believe you’ll bring some of that stuff back.  And if not, well, I can live without, I guess.  But if you want me to be a megaphone for your new thneed, then you need to give me the fucking key.

Google Music: The revolution you’ve been waiting for is (still) not here yet

A month or so back, Google announced its new plan to take over the world: Google Music.  No one was really sure what it did, but it was made by Google and it had something to do with music, so it had to be good right?  Oh, and there was something in there about syncing your Android devices…whatever that means.

Just like when Google said “hey, we’re going to give a whole bunch of people some of our brand-spanking-new ChromeOS tablets that haven’t actually been built yet,” or when they said “hey, we’ve got this new technology called Wave…we’re not really sure what it does, but we want you to test it for us,” I put my email address in the box to sign up for the beta.  Last week, I got my invite.

Here’s what Google Music (presumably) does:

You upload your music to the server (up to 20,000 files for free).  Once there, you can access, stream, and play it from pretty much anywhere.  The application is web-based, so it’s not platform specific (except for the Music Manager tool which runs on your desktop computer and handles the uploading part).  The interface is sparse bordering on unfinished.  The features are limited.  It’s sort of like a simplified iTunes if iTunes was what it was circa version 1 or so.  To be honest, I’ve barely used it, and this is why.

The first problem I had was that I couldn’t sign into the Music Manager application.  It said it didn’t like my password and locked me out.  I decided that this was most likely because my Google Apps password for my email address was different than the password I used for the same email address that I used for my Google identity everywhere else.  However, knowing this didn’t fix the problem.  Eventually, I found a bit of a hack/workaround by using my YouTube screenname (jazzs3quence) and the same password I use for my regular Google identity (which is also used by YouTube). This worked and it turned my YouTube screen name into a Gmail address ([email protected]) — an interesting trick.  A couple days after I figured this out, I got a response to my reported issue to Google saying that it was because my Google Apps account hadn’t migrated over to the new version yet.  I more or less ignored this piece of useless information since I had already managed to get it working.

The second problem may only be a problem for me, which is the 20,000 file upload limit.  Presumably when this thing launches, you’ll be able to upload more for a fee.  I have between 30-40,000 music files, so 20k doesn’t really cut it.  The Music Manager program far from lives up to its name, not really providing a place to manage your music — it does what pretty much every other program of its ilk does, which is let you specify where your music files are stored (or import via your iTunes playlist).  However, if I’m limited to 20k, I’d like to be able to pick what gets uploaded and what doesn’t — the Music Manager doesn’t really offer a good way of doing this other than drilling down your directory tree and individually adding each folder.  Since I let iTunes handle my files, that means I have a separate folder for every artist (as well as artists iTunes doesn’t have a clue about and dumps in Unknown Artist).  Doing that for the equivalent of 20,000 files would be a glorious waste of time.  Once uploaded, you can delete songs, albums, and presumably entire artists from the Google Music interface, but I’m unconvinced that doing so would have any influence over whether that artist got uploaded again after it scanned your collection again and realized you had music by them.   Say I don’t plan on listening to Dizzy Gillespie on the Android device that I don’t actually own, if I delete Dizzy from Google Music, how do I know that Dizzy won’t get uploaded again before, say, Trent Reznor since it exists alphabetically sooner?  The only real way to be sure would be to exclude the Dizzy Gillespie folder, which, as I’ve pointed out, isn’t very manageable with a huge number of artists.

The biggest issue for me, though, came as I was trying to do work.  The Music Manager was chugging along in the background, up to 10,000-something of 30,000-something files, I was listening to iTunes (not Google Music) and trying to code.  I say trying because even though the Notepad++ application I use for coding is tiny, it was straining to do anything.  Alt+TABbing forced me to wait several minutes, and I was increasingly getting the Windows 7 gray screen of death on various windows.  When I finally manged to pull up Task Manager, I found the culprit: Music Manager was sucking up over 90% of my CPU resources.  This is essentially like the midget flame-eater telling the ring leader to step aside, he can take the show from here — screw the clowns.  Once I killed that process, my computer happily went along doing its normal business as if nothing had happened.  It even seemed to flip through windows perkily, like I’d finally been able to find that irritating itch that had been bugging it.  Granted uploading 10,000+ files is fairly excessive, and granted that uploading files at all can be fairly resource-intensive, why a program designed to run in the background can be allowed to use that much of my system resources is astounding.  I started wondering if maybe I had downloaded a virus — instead, the only virus I downloaded was Google Music.

The only positive thing I can say about Google Music is that, after picking your favorite genres from a ridiculously-simplified list of possibilities (for a musicophile like me, anyway) is that Google Music will come pre-loaded with some selections from those selected genres.  However, for the reasons mentioned above (namely having more than 20k files to start with), this really isn’t that helpful, especially considering the inclusion of artists like Cab Calloway (in the Jazz category) and C-40 (in the Hip Hop & Rap category) whom I have little-to-no interest in whatsoever.  (Also included in Rap was Kriss Kross which could be considered a keeper if only for novelty value.)  Meanwhile, checking on my Music Manager informed me that it had made its way to my collection of downloaded audiobooks, which I have absolutely zero interest in actually having on the site when every file counts.

Considering I don’t have an Android device, Google Music has nothing to offer me.  Even if I did, the platform is unappealing and without any features that I would consider essential.  Moreover, there’s nothing that Google Music is doing that couldn’t be done for at least five years or so with a little open source web app I discovered called Ampache, which you could use — with some configuring — to turn your desktop computer into a web server and stream your entire music collection to any device (assuming it could handle Flash, Shoutcast streams, or playlist files).  And since the debut of Ampache (which I discovered sometime around 2005 and it had been in development for several years before that), other things have cropped up that allow you to stream your music (or other files) to various devices like Wiisic, Orb, and dot.tunes, which take care of the server side of things to make it even easier to set up.

So, sorry Google, maybe you’re winning someone over, but I’m unimpressed.  Now get your stupid Music Manager the hell off my system and stop sucking up my processor power.  Thanks.

RockMelt isn’t all that hot

I somehow missed the hype machine for the new social browser, RockMelt.  So, when @LastPass tweeted that it worked with RockMelt, my ears perked up.  RockMelt? WTF is that?

RockMelt is a new kind of browser, or so the introductory video told me, one that combines your social web with your browsing experience.  We’ve met such browsers before; Flock was supposed to make your browsing experience easier and more social, too and everybody’s switched browsers to Flock now, right?  Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Still, I was interested in how the sidebars interacted dynamically with what you were looking at.  And I’m always fancy-new-gadgets-yay, so I signed up for the beta last night.  Aaaand I got my invite this morning.

Let me get one thing out there: I’m not attached at the hip to Facebook.  In fact, generally, I could care less.  The only reason I go there at all is because I have so many people I actually know there with whom I probably would never interact with otherwise.  People I went to college or high school or worked with who I actually like.  But I’ve got more important things to do with my time than wait for the latest update from someone’s FarmVille game, let alone play it myself.  On the other hand, I’m active on Twitter.  I manage 3 separate accounts (though one is mostly on autopilot) and I, at least occasionally, have the sorts of 140-character conversations that people have on Twitter.  A look at my about page will tell you I’m also connected to a lot of other sites, too, some of which I use daily (like Glue and Empire Avenue), some of which I check in maybe once a month or so (like Goodreads), and some of which I rarely, if ever, visit (like Foursquare).  At the same time, I’ve turned off all pop-up notifications from everything because I found, ultimately, that it’s incredibly distracting and I can get a lot more work done when I don’t have a little message popping up in the corner of my screen every 5 minutes.

From the video preview, I could tell that RockMelt was using WebKit.  Just glancing at the tabs told me that, which look exactly like Chrome‘s tabs (really? you couldn’t do something different?).  After downloading the beta and running the install, it told me that, in order to import my settings from Chrome, I needed to close it first.  So I did.  It asked me to log into Facebook.  So I did.  Then it gave me a window that looked exactly like Chrome, but with two sidebars.  The one on the left showing my Facebook contacts, and the one on the right showing my updates from Facebook and (after I logged in) Twitter.  Here’s the thing about Facebook: you know how I just said that I actually use it to keep in touch with people I like?  Well, with a few exceptions, I can generally count those people on one hand.  So, seeing a list of all my online Facebook contacts really doesn’t help me that much.  Now, you can “favorite” your contacts, and switch over to list your favorites rather than your online contacts, but when my favorites (at least in terms of chatting online) number exactly two, that’s not that helpful, really.  What would be better is if it integrated into more social networks.  Anyone hear of Google?  It wouldn’t be hard to integrate a Google Chat into the browser that also brought up the same sorts of information and sharing opportunities you get from the Facebook integration.  And since I (and the rest of the known universe) use Google on a daily basis, this would be much more helpful than my Facebook contacts.  And what about other, similar networks that use an open standard, like Identi.ca and Diaspora?  Having this sort of feature embedded in your browser really needs to have the ability to tune it to your own usage with your own networks, rather than just assuming everybody is using — and wants to integrate into their regular browsing experience — Facebook.

On the right side, as I said, there’s updates from Facebook and Twitter.  What’s actually interesting here, though, is that if you’re on a site that has an RSS feed, a little green button lights up that tells you that you can add that to your sidebar and get notifications from that site.  With all the hub-bub about how RSS is dead (hint: it’s not), this is a great way of integrating RSS into your daily browsing experience in a way that is easy for the non-geeks to pick up on intuitively.  This would be especially useful for adding news sites and getting a list of the latest headlines, or just adding your favorite blogs and using it like an RSS reader.

Beyond that, though, it’s really just Chrome that’s been taught a few cool tricks.  Tricks that, I’m sure, could easily have been developed as standalone extensions within Chrome rather than building an entirely new browser for them.  (Of course, when I re-opened Chrome after RockMelt’s “import”, I was appalled to see that all of my tabs were gone and it was displaying some web page on my hard drive that didn’t exist.  Luckily, although my history was funky and all my Bookmarks were showing up as recently opened pages, I was able to scroll through my history and find most of my previously-open tabs.)  If I had the choice, I’d take the RSS integration and ditch everything else.  That said, I’m not really the target market for this browser.  I’m a geek and I like doing things myself and in my own way.  The billions of users of Facebook that make up the majority would probably be excited to have a way to merge Facebook into the rest of the web.  I’m just not one of those people.  I can see how there could be quite a market for this browser, but only if said market is using the web in exactly the way they intended it to be used.  This has always been the downfall of applications that try to blend all your social networks into one app: it’s great in theory, but in practice, they’re always lacking at least one network (if not multiple) which makes it less appealing to use it as an all-in-one.  In my opinion, the current model of browser development is a good one: the browser is for browsing web sites, any other features can be added through plugins or extensions.  Coding extra features like social network integration into the browser core only makes it heavier, potentially slower, and ends up limiting the user’s browsing experience rather than adding to it.  On the other hand, browser developers should build easy ways to keep up on news feeds and blog updates in an intuitive and visual way, which is something that — I’m not the first to say — has been lacking in modern web browsers.

In conclusion, RockMelt is great if you’re already glued to Facebook, and less so if you’re not.  If that does describe you and you want to check it out, let me know — I have some invites available I can send your way.

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.