Imagine there's no Google. It ain't easy if you try. Clearly, most of us here rely heavily on Google just for the operating system on our phones. But then there's Google search, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube, Google Calendar, etc., etc. How easy is it for a heavy user to leave all these behind? I went a week without Google to find out.
Google could delete you if it wanted
Let's begin with a nervous reminder: Google reserves the right to terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice. That means that everything, all your precious calendar scheduling, photos, Drive documents, apps, emails; it's all gone; vaporized into infinity by the Google death ray without warning and possibly without reason. Now, of course, this is extremely unlikely to happen, but the possibility exists, and, if it does happen, Google is liable to pay you nothing.
Google reserves the right to terminate your account at any time
Consider this. For me, it would a nightmare. Mostly for my working life, which relies heavily on Google services, but also for my private life. All my photos are backed up in Google Photos. I have a personal Gmail account. I use Google Maps an obscene amount and have many preferences tied up in it. I use Google Calendar to organize my life. At the very least, losing access to all of this would be a major setback.
So, I decided to try going without Google for a week, just to see what life would be like without the Silicon Valley giant. A couple of caveats, however, in case you hadn't guessed already that it's practically impossible to go 100-percent Google free: I continued using my Galaxy S6, which runs on Google's Android OS. What I avoided were Google apps, Google search and any additional services you care to name.
Where to go without Google (and how to get there)
Let's start with the browser. Now, obviously, I couldn't use Google Chrome, which has been my browser for years. I couldn't switch to Firefox either, which uses Google Safe Browsing. I could user Mercury! No, I couldn't. It uses WebKit, which is co-developed by Google. Dolphin Browser uses this too. I couldn't use Opera, which is based on Chromium. Eventually, I settled on Puffin, which, as far as I could tell, was free of Google's influence.
Even then, I had to download an APK from a third-party source (no Play Store for me), which left me vulnerable to malicious software. Nonetheless, I get Puffin on my phone. I import my bookmarks, but all my login details remain absent. Setting things up to my liking was no short process. Puffin boasts superlative Flash support, but no one uses flash anymore. I found it to be pretty quick, but I really longed for the functionality, integration and cleanliness of Chrome the whole time I used it.
I couldn't use Google search. Alternatives are Bing, which actually has some advantages over Google, particularly in the video department, but Google reigns supreme in locating specific information when it's buried below the surface of a web page. There's also DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused alternative that also offers more universal search results and a few features that Google lacks. I was surprised by how easy it was to go without Google search. Overall, it was unexpectedly the simplest of Google's services to live without.
Once you leave the safety of the search results, however, things get more complicated. Looking at a restaurant's website, I came across an embedded Google Map. I hissed and recoiled in horror. Instead of that convenient little box right there on the website, I had to copy and paste their address into HERE Maps. As an app, this is a viable, and in some ways, preferable alternative, but Google's UI wins for me, and then there is, as always, the fact that all my past information is tied up in the Google complex, and Google Maps is embedded into so many millions of websites.
My Gmail account was nearly impossible to live without. It's my work email, and, well, let's just say I used Gmail.
This is emblematic of the main problem of trying to shake off the big G. Its services are so deeply embedded in our daily lives, that, even though I can use an alternative calendar without too many problems, and, sure, I can use HERE Maps instead of Google Maps, there are services that are so impractical to find alternatives for that it simply isn't worth the trouble.
So what are the reasons for wanting to break free? Privacy concerns would certainly be a big one. Who knows how much data Google has, and we have no reassurances worth speaking of that this data isn't, or won't at some point, be used for purposes we'd rather it weren't used for.
I discovered that the lengths I needed to go to to actively avoid Google were, let's say, extreme. Even Google's AdSense was poking around planting cookies when I wasn't using Chrome or Google search.
The best most of us can realistically hope to do, if we're concerned about privacy, is to be more conservative with Google's privacy settings by e.g., disabling location tracking, which I recently found to be rather voyeuristic, to say the least.
However, even before I conducted this experiment, I had found myself warming to Google's data mining. Google Now has actually provided me with genuinely useful, real-world solutions in my daily life on several occasions in the past few weeks. The intelligent convenience it offers me is actually really hard to resist. I struggle not to let my guard down.
My week without Google solidified this feeling. I am now more sure than ever that I don't want to live without Google (not to sound overly dramatic). For me, at least, an absolute break with Google would be the act of a contrarian. I like Google's UIs, cross-compatibility and functionality over other apps that I have tried, and that counts for my calendar, map, email, browser and cloud-storage apps, i.e., most of the apps that I frequently use.
A question of balance
On the one hand, I deeply value my privacy; on the other hand, I find the services Google offers to be the best, and the data it gathers to be turned around in a genuinely useful way. This is the paradox familiar, no doubt, to many users. And one for which there is no easy solution. Choosing complete privacy cuts out many of the things we have come to rely on in our lives, while complete submission leaves us at the mercy of a huge company that might not have our best interests at heart. I, and many other users, continue to strive for some sort of balance.
It is very much worth remembering, as a closing note, however, that if you do rely on Google, that the data you choose to store on the company's cloud services is not permanent, although it may feel that way, and it's best to keep alternative backups.
How reliant are you on Google, and do you think that an ideal balance between privacy and convenience can be found? Leave a comment with your thoughts.