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Switching From Google

When Google announced that they were shuttering Reader it made me take stock of how I felt about the company and how I interacted with them. I looked around and saw how heavily invested I had become and, over time, had been completely reliant and reservedly trusting of their services – specifically Gmail and Google Calendar.

The Reader shutdown is the last in a line of events that underlined the fact that Google’s interests and mine were diverging. When they were innovating with interesting technology like Google Wave[1] or Google Voice or taking the lead with a centralized and better solutions like Google Reader, Gmail or Gchat, they always seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what could be done on the web and focused on making it better.

But somewhere during the rise of Facebook, things began to change. Google’s focus was on ad revenue and how to monetize these great base technologies they had helped create and foster. Their focus shifted subtly at first and I was forced to ask the question more and more “I am willing to give up access to my personal information for this product? Is it really that good?”

In most cases, the answer was “yes”. Gmail really was that good. It was a killer app. Reader really was that good. It centralized hundreds of newsfeeds into one place and a burgeoning ecosystem was built upon it making it easy to read things in one place and have them stay marked as read in another.[2]

My move away from Google has been one borne out of the fact I no longer see them heading in a direction that I want to support. Their products seem confused and ill-focused. I see the main reason being that they no longer are concentrating on just building a great service and sorting out the money bit later; they need to fold that in upfront and it is diffusing their focus on serving people who use their tools and it putting it squarely on serving the companies buying ads to serve to the users of those tools. I understand that companies need to make money, certainly. But since Google’s ability to make money is directly proportional to how much access they have to me and my data, this direction change didn’t sit well with me.

I started taking steps to extricate myself from their products as much as possible. This wasn’t going to be an all-or-nothing thing. I wasn’t about to post some indendiary “I am so done with Google!” rant and stop using everything associated with them all at once. This was going to be a reasoned, sensible approach to minimizing my exposure to being disappointed by their current (and no doubt future) product decisions. I didn’t want to close the barn doors and burn the barn down. I just wanted to use only the services that were truly helping me. I also wanted to consider the price of taking the path of least resistance with regards to my personal data and the fact that, while in the Google ecosystem, I wasn’t using a product – I was the product.

Calendars

At first, I switched my calendering over to iCloud. It had obvious integration with OS X and Fantastical and the switch was completely painless. In some ways, it was better than dealing with Google Calendar because it is one of the few things that iCloud seems to get right. I still use Google Calendar for shared calendars for specific purposes because it is simply easier when collaborating with others. When it ceases to be easier, I’ll probably stop using it in those cases too.

Mail

The second switch was more painful – mail. I have been a Gmail user since it first launched. I have gigs of data on the service and having access to my archive of communication, combined with Google’s fantastically efficient search, has saved my bacon many times.

I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted to have more control however. And as much as I used to not believe it, Google’s idea of “free” was quickly coming with a price as services I loved went away and services with marginal use were pushed to the fore in ways I found obtrusive and ugly.

After some asking around on ADN for some mail services people like, a name that kept coming up was Fastmail.fm. I did some research into Fastmail and sites like it and ended up thinking Fastmail was a pretty good choice. IMAP support, good security, excellent help documentation, setup guides, and their tech support (I later came to find out) was top notch.

I set up my Gmail accounts to forward to the new Fastmail.fm account and added Fastmail as my main inbox in Sparrow on both iOS and my Macbook Air. Everything went smoothly, the mail started flowing and all looked good.

There were a few things that were a worry when moving away from Gmail though. Looking through my Spam folder, it was clear that Gmail does a great job of trapping most garbage from hitting my inbox. Fastmail has touted anti-spam algorithms but I thought it might be good to take matters into my own hands on this one.

I bought an app called SpamSieve and installed it on my Mac Mini, which serves as a home multimedia/download server among other things. Using the Mini as a mail server drone took some fiddling and testing but I got SpamSieve’s Applescripts to work, allowing me to remotely train the Bayesian filters from any of my devices.

After a few weeks of testing, SpamSieve has been nothing short of miraculous and I couldn’t be happier with how clean it is keeping my inbox. It has saved me a lot of time in just deleting the marginally-spammy mails. I left the main spam filter running on Fastmail to catch the “v14grA” level spam, but the email equivalent of sales circulars and such are now heading to the Spam filter too. I peruse it daily to make sure thing important is stuck in there but very little has been mis-filed. If it ever is, I just throw it in a “TrainGood” folder and SpamSieve knows to let them through in the future and if junk ever gets into my inbox, I drop it in a “TrainSpam” folder. Both of these actions help tune and train the Bayesian filters in SpamSieve and it just keeps getting better and better.

I shelled out for Mail Pilot on iOS and was hoping to include it in my review of this whole process but Mail Pilot launched having issues with Fastmail IMAP settings. I’m eagerly awaiting a new App store release to try it out since it will apparently address these problems. It has felt like a long wait but with the likes of “invite throttled” apps like Tempo.ai and Mailbox lately, I guess should be used to delayed gratification by now.

Google search is the best. There’s really nothing close, although engines like Bing and DuckDuckGo are coming along. In order to give one those other servies a try, I set up DuckDuckGo as my default search in Alfred and Safari on my Mac. The results from DDG have been mixed. Sometimes it is spot on, but other times it is nowhere near as much of a mindreader as Google. I am never sure if that is because it has been scanning my personal life in such detail for so long that it has built a profile that guides the tuning of my results or if I am giving too much credit and they are just generally better at deducing what people are looking for.

Whatever the reason, Google just finds what I want faster and with less spurious links in the result set. I am still going to keep using DuckDuckGo for a while though. I don’t think its fair to base my opinion a small sample size of just a few weeks. It is something I’ll keep my eye on in the ensuing months.

Social

Google+. What can I say? I tried to like it. I set aside my distaste and distrust when it launched as it tried to create a “better Facebook” but it became apparent quickly that it sucks in all of the ways that Facebook sucks but also sucks in new and different ways as well. In a strange way, the more people that used it, the worse it got. The comments were less thoughtful and more reactive and the anti-Apple vitriol seemed to be the main focus when reading technology-related posts. I kept it around for a while to see what the crowds were saying but when I realize the answer was “nothing”, I checked out.

Right now, my main source of social-related activity is ADN. The conversations are far better, the people are more inclined towards civil (and interesting) discourse and there are fantastic apps out there that make use of it (Riposte and Felix are the two best on the iPhone and Kiwi the standout on the Mac).

Twitter is fun too. The main reason I enjoy reading my stream there is Twitterific. It’s the best way to read Twitter right now, although Tweetbot on my Mac does yeoman work as well. I wish there was a stream-marker system that crossed apps and platforms that worked consistently but, for now, I just scroll to the top and try not to care so much about what I “missed”.

Work in Progress

I realize I have a contrarian streak in me a mile wide and I need to be mindful of that fact as I make decisions like this. Some decisions I’ve made in the past about apps and services have been impulsive but still were no-brainers[3]. I leave those behind with no regrets. Other decisions however carry some weight that require a bit more introspection. In the scope of things, calls like this seem minor but they bring up serious ideas like digital security, archiving, accessibility, integration and future-proofing. These are the ideas that are worth putting some thought into.


  1. I wish Google Wave was still around. I am still thinking up uses for it. It was hobbled by a slow infrastructure and somewhat inscrutable design but overall it was an entire platform waiting to provide solutions to problems that hadn’t taken shape yet. ↩

  2. You can say it killed an ecosystem in doing so but the result was so compelling and useful it hardly mattered to me at the time. ↩

  3. Any app or service that merges with Facebook is something I’ll no longer use. Any app or service that requires Facebook in any way (to find friends or integrate “socially”) is something I delete immediately. ↩