TechQuark.com takes up a challenge to go a week without Google and its plethora of products
The other day I was having a casual conversation with my friend about — you guessed it — technology. The conversation quickly turned towards Google because it seems these days no commentary on anything remotely related to tech is ever complete without the G word creeping in. Now this gentleman I’m talking about is somewhat of the paranoid sort but well, who isn’t? He thinks Big Brother is watching his every move and so he feebly tries to cover his tracks online, all the time. Even after repeated attempts of trying to convince him that his life is just not interesting enough to track, he doesn’t seem to get the message. It’s not surprising then, that he suffers from the “big company syndrome” wherein people start trusting a corporation less as it grows bigger; in this case — Google. Whether or not there is any merit in not trusting such an entity is debatable, but it’s certainly worth some speculation. Imagine a single corporation such as Google, giving you access to so many services you so helplessly depend on, leading to much information that you unknowingly reveal to it. In an age where information is power, such an entity could have an awful lot of power, perhaps too much.
My friend then went on to tell me how dependent we are on Google and its many offerings and he’d bet that no one can survive a week without using Google. Now this was interesting. I eagerly took him up on that challenge. Not because I find Google a Big Bad Wolf but because I’m quite bored of it. The same old layout for all the services — the top bar with settings and links to other services, the lame old blue and not to mention the overly simplistic presentation. This little experiment might turn out to be pretty interesting, I figured. A change is always nice, isn’t it? Besides, any old hand would tell you that depending on a single supplier for all your needs is just bad practice.
Although I took it up gallantly, at the very outset it seemed likely that my “week without Google” could soon render me “weak without Google”. Indeed we depend so much on the Mountain View giant. Its services that we all take for granted are varied and I admit, quite good. Even someone like me, who is generally a serious character, would like my daily dose of entertainment through YouTube. Not to mention the fact that, like many others, I depend heavily on Google Search, Gmail, Google Docs and Google maps. That’s not all; I read somewhere that Google offers over seventy services, at least ten of which we’ve become habituated to use.
But I was determined to make it work. After all, no challenge is too big for us right? The more I got down to breaking down Google’s offerings and looking for alternatives, it became apparent that there are equivalent, and sometimes even better options available out there. Here’s what I found.
Search is perhaps the single most important offering Google has. Well apart from mail of course, but I’ll come back to that later. The problem of looking at alternatives for Google Search, however has got me thinking some more. It reminds me of a time back in January when it seemed Google search actually went offline for an hour. Well it didn’t go offline in the traditional sense of the word — it just broke. That’s right someone broke Google. For an hour Google kept identifying every search result as potentially harmful and didn’t take you anywhere except a warning page. The problem was caused by human error. Some nitwit at one of Google’s associates, stopbadware.com, identified the back slash “/” as a bad site. The problem was solved on the double, but what if Google didn’t come back on in an hour and had taken longer to fix? Makes one wonder about the repercussions, doesn’t it? Would the economy slow down a little more? It’s possible, many online shopping web sites would not get visitors. Transactions would dwindle down, and so on. So it appears that Google has become synonymous with the internet rather than being an access gate to the internet. If we were to draw a usage pie representing the ways in which we use the Google Search engine, you’d be surprised to know that the maximum percentage would probably be as a spell checker. Followed by — searching for porn; searching for finding useful information; using it because you are unsure about the correct URL or even something as ridiculous as being lazy enough to type “.com”. Pertaining to information we must remember that there are other entry points for accessing the vast amounts of information floating around in cyberspace.
Which other search engines can you use? I decided to visit my old favorite pre-Google era haunt alltheweb.com. It’s now owned by Yahoo!, it’s still fast and the advanced search feature is quite extensive. I tried to put in a wrong spelling and it even offered me a “did you mean?” suggestion. Speaking of Yahoo, the Yahoo search itself is not that bad. Another option is Ask.com which has a nice simple interface; simpler than Google’s. Dogpile.com is a search engine that aggregates results from other engines, while Mamma.com (aka. the mother of all search engines) is also an alternative. Faganfinder.com also helps me get to those really pesky bits of information on the web. The other biggie — Microsoft — provides a very viable alternative in its Live Search (live.com) service. It’s good at searching the web, but at the same time I found it to be the best alternative when it comes to dethroning Google’s image search. An image search for confiker actually returned better results than the raining image search champion. As far as using Google Search as a spell checker, I used an application called Wordweb. It’s a free dictionary and thesaurus that is far better than using Google. Just hit [Alt]+[Ctrl]+[W] to bring up the nifty little application from the task bar and query any word you want. You don’t even have to get the spelling right, it’ll give you suggestions just like Google does.
Gmail is a tricky animal to live without. Many of us have already migrated to Gmail having still retained those old Yahoo, Hotmail or other inboxes. In such cases it shouldn’t be a problem, just use a filter in Gmail to forward all your mail to another account, like I did. But what about those people who have started off with Gmail? They’re far too used to the conversation style layout of Gmail which clubs relevant conversations together. Some are very comfortable with the labeling system (Though personally, I never did mind folders). Fear not, it’s not as if there is no one out there who offers the same. Zoho Mail is a nice mail service that will give you much of the functionality of Google and will even let you access it using your existing Gmail or Yahoo account. In.com offers a small mail ID while giving you the conversation style system along with ample storage space. Mozilla’s Thunderbird, though not technically web mail but a mail client, is another great alternative. It has the capability of adding plugins or extensions. Add in Lightning or Sunbird and you can even replace Google Calendar. If you prefer a web-based calendar app then 30 Boxes should work for you. It also integrates with Twitter and Facebook.
Another important Google service I use is the iGoogle start page. It is a customizable start page that lets you add news, photos, weather, and stuff from across the web to a single page. Finding a replacement for this service was not at all a difficult task. Several players such as Netvibes, Sthrt, Pageflakes and even MyYahoo and Microsoft Live provide start pages that are equally good and perhaps even better. I settled in on Netvibes.
This is perhaps the most non-trivial service Google is providing. It is definitely the most popular name when it comes to cloud-based office applications. But as with most things, popular isn’t necessarily the best. Zoho offers office tools that are actually better. The word processor layout is very similar to MS Word and hence I found it pretty comfortable to use. The features offered by Zoho Writer are much better than Google Docs. Zoho allows you to post to your blog directly from within the feature rich Writer. Be it Blogger.com, Wordpress.com, LiveJournal, TypePad or any blog that supports meta Weblog API, you can make the post from Zoho Writer. You can add tags and optionally make the post as a draft as well. Like Google Docs, Zoho also provides great integration with its other products. In addition to all this Zoho’s Notebook tool surely earns it some more points.
Thinkfree, another great option, goes beyond just online word processing and offers the power tool, which lets you work offline and sync files with the cloud. Since Thinkfree is a Java-based suite, it works online as well as offline, offering you a better usage experience than purely online options such as Google Docs, that try to work strictly within the confines of an HTML framework. Thinkfree is a very powerful office tool — once you get past the annoying initial phase when opening a new document
The Google Reader is fast and easy to use. But surely there can be an alternative. There is, and it comes in the form of downloadable feed reader apps such as FeedDemon and Feedreader. Feed Demon has certain unique features such as “Watches” which are folders that aggregate current news for keywords automatically. Still, like me, if you are one of those who prefer online applications then you can use plugins for Firefox such as Sage or even the inbuilt feed aggregator for Opera. Or go in for popular options such as Bloglines or Netvibes which are essentially feed readers.
Google Maps has become one of the most used of its myriad services. I find myself depending on it quite heavily when planning my vacations. The product is no doubt superlative, but as always, there are options. There are the other web biggies — Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Yahoo Maps. Another forerunner in the online mapping space, and one that I found quite useful, is maps.ask.com. It has regular maps as well as satellite overlays, complete with driving instructions and distance calculator. Google Earth also has a rival in the form of Virtual Earth 3D — a Microsoft brainchild.
The whole world it seems has now got quite used to Google News. It’s a good aggregator for reliable news from reputed sources. I found the new timeline feature quite interesting too. So if I am to look for an alternative for this particular tool, it had better be good. My search led me to one of Google’s biggest rivals — Live Search. But it turns out that the news section here is not available to people in this part of the world. So to get to it, you’ll have to change your default location to United States. Very silly. It’s a fairly decent option and I particularly liked the “More on this story” button which brings you similar news results. Just like Google News you have the option of browsing by categories such as entertainment, sport, sci-tech, health, and so on. Its news videos are quite relevant too. If you are looking for a fresh look like the Google Labs’ timeline experiment, check out marumushi.com/apps/newsmap/ for an interesting way to depict news.
But speaking of video, what am I going to do without my daily dose of YouTube? Obviously I’m overreacting. Between Yahoo Video, Metacafe, Vimeo, Rewer, Blip.tv and Veoh I don’t think I’ll be missing YouTube anytime soon. In fact, looking elsewhere in this department might seriously be a refreshing experience. So moving on, for Orkut there’s already FaceBook, for Picasa there’s Flickr, and so on and so forth. The point is that without Google my life certainly did not come to a standstill. And neither will anyone else’s. Sure Google has some superlative products but I don’t need to be a willing participant in its increasing monoculture.
7 days later...
The week has finally ended and I’ve won the bet. This little experiment proved, if anything, that Google is good at most of what it does. But should the need for variety arise there are always options. Also, on a lighter note, if someone were to sabotage the multi-tentacled G monster, I’m probably the most prepared person there is. Now, so are you.