Google

Getting off of Google Calendar and Google Talk – Not Going to Happen

Awhile back I started to move off of the various Google services I have been using over the years. Some of those transitions have been very successful (GMail), others mostly sucessful (Google Search). One service I ended up having to go back to (Google Reader) because there simply aren’t any other options available. There were two other services I have been using that simply aren’t options to get rid of right now, Google Calendar and Google Talk.

To make a long story very short there is one reason why I can’t dump either one of these services: work. Sure there are other options out there for online calendaring but not one that supports a feature I desperately need: the ability to sync with Lotus Notes. We use Notes at work and we are not allowed web access. Currently they are researching various options for mobile phone access for those of us who don’t have corporate Blackberry phones (yuck). As it currently stands getting access to my calendar via my iPhone or iPad would require a corporate profile to be set up along with which comes several restrictions that I am simply not willing to accept. That basically leaves me with one option which is to run an application to sync my Notes calendar with Google Calendar. I have not found any options yet that sync with other online calendars so for the moment I have no option but to keep using Google Calendar.

The same thing goes for Google Talk. It is the only instant messaging client that we can use to get outside of the firewall at work. Many of us use it and not communicating with people at work is not an option so Google Talk it is.

Getting off of Google Search

A lot has been made lately about decreasing dependency on the various services that Google offers. The podcast Mac Power Users even devoted an episode to the options available to someone who wanted to get rid of Google as much as possible. I recently dumped Google search and after listening to the MPU podcast I didn’t think they dove quite deeply enough into the subject (understandable. They had a lot of ground to cover.).

I do think it’s important to discuss one thing quickly that they also touched on during the MPU episode: dump what you feel comfortable with. I’ve read several articles in which people have chronicled their adventures in getting rid of all Google services but for some of us that might not be desirable or even possible. There is absolutely no reason to dump Google en masse. What is important is knowing the implications of using Google’s services and acting appropriately. In my case I’ve had a Google account (Gmail to be exact) since 2004 with a lot of professional contacts in both Gmail and Google Talk. While I don’t use my Gmail account anymore I do have it forward to another email account and my Google Talk account is still necessary because I use it to chat with a lot of contacts at work and it’s the only IM service I can use at work. To get rid of it at this point just wouldn’t be realistic (though there are ways around Google Talk as well if it isn’t the only service you can use via work. More on that in another post).

Options to tame privacy issues while using Google search

There are a couple of areas to think about as far as Google search goes:

  • Google ads – which can further be broken down into:
    • Ads while searching.
    • Ads while browsing other websites.
  • Google search personalization.
    • Also includes personal results based on Google+ circles, etc.

Google serves up advertising based on what you’re searching on as well as your search history. They track this information whether you are signed in to a Google account or not. If you’re not signed in a tracking cookie is placed in your web browser.

Google also tailors the search results returned to you based on your history, links you’ve clicked, etc. to try to make the search results more relevant to you (also known as search bubbling). Again they do this whether you are signed in or not but turning off this feature has different steps for each case.

Turn off search personalization while signed in

If you are searching while signed in to Google there are several things to turn off. The first is shutting off the web history feature which records your searches and lets you browse your search history. Actually though you can’t really shut it off, Google lets you “pause” it. This effectively stops the feature from recording searches from that point forward. It is also a good idea to delete all of the search history that is stored. Going to https://www.google.com/history while signed in allows you to pause your web history as well as remove what is already stored.

Google also offers the ability to turn off personal results, which includes personalization based on what is in your Google+ circles (assuming you have them). This can be either based on the current browsing session (if you exit and restart your web browser it will be turned back on) or at an account level (stays off between browsing sessions). Full details and instructions are here.

Turn off search personalization while signed out

Turning off search personalization while signed out is pretty straightfoward: opt out of further personalization. This turns off the cookie Google uses to track you. The links for these options are here. Make sure you sign out of your account before visiting that page.

Turn off advertising personalization

There is one place to opt out of ad personalization and that can be found here. Make sure to sign in first so that you can opt out of ad personalization while signed in (the link is “Ads on Search and Gmail” on the left side of the page). You can also opt out of ad personalization on other websites on which Google provides ads by clicking on the “Ads on the web” link on the left side of the page.

Google also provides a browser plugin for Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer to opt out of the DoubleClick cookie.

If you wish to opt out of other ad-serving sites visit the opt-out page provided by the Network Advertising Initiative (of which Google is a member).

More options

Browser plugins

There are several companies that make browser plugins to help keep your web browsing habits to yourself. My plugin of choice is Ghostery. My browser of choice is Firefox and the Ghostery add-on works well. I also use Safari on occassion and Ghostery is available there as well. When I used Google Chrome I had Ghostery installed there too.

Other search engines

There is life after Google as far as search goes. I don’t use Microsoft Bing because they do the same sorts of tracking that Google does and they have their own ad network. My search engine of choice is duckduckgo. I’ll let them explain their stance on privacy. They also offer options to help make searching with them easier (such as making them the default search engine in Firefox).

Final thoughts

There are certainly a lot of things to think about and settings to visit if you want to tame how Google is tracking you. Even with all of these options I don’t think it is totally possible to have anonymity on the web. There are just too many sites trying to track us and our browsing habits. It is possible to retain a lot more control over what information you are giving up as you browse the web. Google’s options for opting out are the first step. A browser add-on like Ghostery is another step. Using a different search engine like duckduckgo is yet another step. The most important step? Having awareness of these issues and taking the appropriate actions to help protect yourself.

Goodbye GMail

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about starting to leave Google services behind because of the latest changes to their privacy policy and because of their behavior in the story that broke about Google using a loophole in the Mobile Safari browser to track users. First I left Google Reader behind and now I’ve let go of GMail.

GMail is the first service of Google’s that I used outside of Google Search. I’ve had an account on there since 2004 when it first opened up as an invitation-only service. GMail offers a lot of great features that just can’t be had on any other free service (and one that can’t be beat by pay-for services – spam filtering) but those features come at a price. I’ve never felt comfortable with the way Google scans emails to serve up “relevant” ads and I haven’t been too happy with the stories I’ve read about people losing access to their email with no questions asked. It hasn’t happened often but once is too many times. Again the cost of using that service is too high so I’ve moved on.

Because I’ve been using the service for so long, and because it’s tied to two other Google services I use (one of which is paid for and therefore not ad-supported – Google App Engine, and the other Google Talk which I use for work for instant messaging) and one non-Google service I use (Flickr…which allows someone to use a Google account to log in) I am not getting rid of my main Google account which I opened with GMail. That being said I no longer rely on GMail for mail…I’m using Apple’s iCloud mail offering.

Given the fact that I’m not getting rid of my Google account altogether the only things I needed to do to move off of GMail were set up an email forwarding rule to my iCloud mail account and after making sure my mail client on my Mac had a copy of everything via IMAP to delete the email off of GMail. Before doing that delete I turned off IMAP access.

The iCloud mail web interface isn’t as full-featured as GMail nor is the spam filtering as good but its good enough. I also gain fantastic mail sync between my Mac and iOS devices which I didn’t have with GMail. I’m glad the switch was easy and I don’t really miss GMail at all. I definitely don’t miss the ads :)

 

Goodbye Google Reader

Update: So I’m back to using Google Reader.  The pain of not having the ability to sync between reading applications on different devices was simply too much to take.  I read a lot of RSS feeds and it wasn’t practical to keep trying to remember where I was the last time I read a particular thread.

So I’m saying goodbye to Google and researching what the options are for the many services that Google provides that I use. One service that I’ve used for years is Google Reader and I’m sad to find out for the way that I use it there simply isn’t a replacement.

I like to have my list of RSS feeds synced between the devices I use and this was easily accomplished with Google Reader.  On my Mac I just use the website.  Even with multiple application options available on the Mac the website is still my preference.  On my iOS devices (both iPhone and iPad) I use Reeder.    Like many of the options out there Reeder only syncs with Google Reader, but then that’s the case with pretty much everything.

I was depressed to find out that the only sync option out there these days is Google Reader.  If you don’t want to use Google Reader  you’re out of luck if you want feeds synced between devices.   So in order to say goodbye to Google Reader I also had to say goodbye to Reeder and RSS on my iOS devices.  On the Mac I chose NetNewsWire because it appears to be the best option out there that doesn’t require syncing with Google Reader.

Goodbye Google, It’s Been Fun

Yeah, this is a posting about why I’m finally saying goodbye to Google. As an avid user of their products from the very beginning, and as someone who is using a lot of their services, this wasn’t an easy decision nor will any transition be easy.

So the main question is why? Because their motto of “Don’t Be Evil” is no longer true and I’m really tired of the cost of their “free” offerings. The last straw for me was the latest story in the on-going saga in which Google (along with several other advertising companies) exploited a loophole in the Safari browser used on the iPhone/iPad and the Mac which allowed them to track user behavior.

The thing is I’m not even angry over the user tracking. I’d expect that from them because they make all of their money off of advertising. What really made me angry was that they tried to deny it.

“We didn’t anticipate that this would happen, and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers,” Google’s Rachel Whetstone explained.

Really? They had no idea this would happen? I find it hard to believe that a company full of a lot of very smart software engineers would have no idea that such a thing would occur. This was another attempt to further integration of Google+ into other things ( the last example being the ridiculous placement of Google+ items in search results).

A trip to your Google Dashboard can be a real eye-opener.  If you have a Google account head over to https://www.google.com/dashboard/ and take a look at the list.  I did and it was a pretty extensive list of just how much data Google has on me.  Email (via gmail), calendar (Google Calendar of course), voice mail (via Google Voice), web search history, etc.

All of these services are free and to be quite honest they’re pretty damn good too.   I’ve really enjoyed using them over the years but I just think now that Google has become so large the cost of their free services is just too high.   I have absolutely no idea what they’re doing with my email.    I know they say they’re scanning it only for ad placement (hey it’s a free service that has to be paid for somehow right?) but I have no way of knowing.  The same thing goes for the data I have in Google Voice and Google Calendar.   I just don’t find the risks acceptable anymore just to get free services.

So the search is on for replacements.   The list of services I’m going to attempt to replace are:

I’ll do a different write-up of each of these as I search for alternatives as it might be useful to someone else.

I really wish this weren’t all necessary.   Maybe I’m being ridiculous because I know that the notion of real privacy in this world is old-fashioned.   However, I only have one way to get my point across and that is to “vote with my wallet” and stop using their services.  None of these services are so important to me that I’m willing to give up important personal data to Google simply for a freebie.  Those days are over.

Mac OS X Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud – exciting times

I’ve got to say that a week on from the release of iOS 5 and iCloud I’m pretty damn excited.  The level of integration I’ve wanted from the first day of having an iPhone 3G is finally here thanks to iCloud.

I’m trying an all-Apple solution full-time for a bit to see how it all works but so far I am impressed.   Why?

  1. iOS 5 finally means iOS devices can be completely PC-free.When I got my iPad (original iPad, not iPad 2) I was impressed but it wasn’t the type of device that should need a PC to work.   Before I could use it I had to plug it into a PC (and by PC I mean Personal Computer….not a Windows machine).  To get content on it I was pretty much OK but if I wanted a backup of that content again a PC was a requirement.  This was  a device crying out to be completely disconnected, independent.  That day is finally here with iOS5.
     
    I can say the same thing about my iPhone.   Over-the-air OS updates, WiFi sync, and a PC-free backup solution are all things I’ve wanted for ages (I’m not even going to get into the other improvements in the software like the new notification system).  Now they’re here with iOS 5.
     
  2. Pain-free syncing with Mac OS.With iCloud syncing mail, contacts, and calendars is now pain-free.   In the past I’ve used Google products for these things and for the most part they’ve worked well.  GMail is already web-based so that is nice but because it doesn’t support the concept of folders, replacing that with labels, using it via Apple Mail (whether iOS or Mac-based) has been kind of clunky at best.  That isn’t GMails fault.  I love the idea of using labels and am not a huge fan of folders but GMail’s implementation of IMAP, required to use if I want to have access via Mail, results in messages being duplicated (long story short: labels get their own folders.  If a message has multiple labels it appears in multiple folders).
     
    Calendar syncing was definitely the easiest of the bunch to implement.   Google Calendar supports the CalDAV standard as do iCal on the Mac and the Calendar application in iOS 5.   With a third-party application like BusyCal on the Mac it’s even better.   However now calendar sync is totally integrated with iCloud on Lion and iOS 5.  While I don’t gain much, and arguably  lose a bit in the calendar interface on iCloud vs. Google Calendar, I’m sticking with iCloud for the moment because of that tight integration.
     
    Contacts.  Ah contacts.  That has always been a mess with Google.   While syncing with Google contacts has been supported by the Address Book application on the Mac it’s never been intuitive.  Syncing with iOS has also been supported via iTunes but again it has never been intuitive.   Works yes.  Works well, no.   Those headaches are gone with contact syncing in iCloud.

With all that said iCloud isn’t perfect.  The web-based calendar application can’t subscribe to external calendars.  Sharing calendars between iCloud users is possible as is sharing calendars with the world.  It also unfortunately shares the ridiculous faux-leather user interface with iCal in Mac OS X.

And while iCloud is fantastic for storing backup data from my iOS devices, and apps that have specific support for it, I can’t just access it from finder like I could iDisk, or Dropbox, or any of the other cloud storage systems out there.  Maybe Apple has a plan for that in the future but paying for storage is a bit less useful to me without that option.

But again I’m pretty excited about what is happening on the Mac and iOS right now.   Apple continues to make things “just work” even if it isn’t with all of the features I might want.  I can live with that.

iCal upgrade for iCloud and BusyCal

I had a very pleasantly surprising experience today when I installed the Mac OS 10.7.2 upgrade for iCloud functionality.   I had iCal subscribed to a selection of my Google calendars via CalDAV.   I also have been trying the trial version of BusyCal which I have set to subscribe to the same set of calendars that are synced to iCal via CalDAV.  One thing cool about BusyCal though is that those calendars are exposed to the Mac as being “native” iCal calendars.   When I started the iCloud setup for iCal one of the things that happened was that it copied the Google calendars and data over to iCloud.   This was fantastic since I’m planning on replacing Google Calendar with iCloud (at least give it a trial).  This made the transition completely painless.

Now I’m just hoping that iCloud is a bit better on launch than MobileMe was :)