A Month Using Google Products Only

Wednesday May 1st 2013 by Mike Elgan
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An Apple fan starts a month-long experiment, limiting himself to Google hardware, software and services.

Starting today, I'm going to spend the entire month of May using only Google hardware, software and services. Can it be done? Should it?

I'm going to find out.

To help the experiment, Google has loaned to me a Chromebook Pixel and their latest Nexus phone and tablet.

I'll be using Android apps, of course, and also web-based services, but only those made by Google itself.

The only exceptions I'll make are sources of content and also the non-Google services two of my editors require me to use for submitting content.

Where I'm Coming From

I'm not naive. I'm expecting deep emotional trauma from this experiment. Over the past couple of years, I've become a Cupertino Kool-aid guzzling Apple fanboy.

I'm a digital nomad and depend on mobile devices to make my living. I've just returned from ten months abroad, living in Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and Spain. During that time, I've used a MacBook Pro, the latest iPad and, until it was stolen by pickpockets in Valencia, an iPhone 5. (After that I went back to using my iPhone 4S.)

I've become very comfortable with OS X and iOS, as well as the many apps I use.

I love Apple's Pages word processor and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, which I use with all my devices.

Android fans on the social networks keep telling me that Android is great. People I respect have switched from iPhone to Android. But I'm just not feeling it.

But having been around the block a few times, I also suspect that my preference for Apple stuff may actually be deep familiarity, and my dislike for Android, unfamiliarity. This experiment will answer this question.

I have mixed feelings about Chromebooks. I used one occasionally about a year ago and was surprised that I enjoyed the simplicity of cloud computing, but I found the Chromebook unpleasant solely because it was a shoddy, underpowered, plastic piece of junk. The Pixel is the opposite, so I'm looking forward to cloud computing on premium hardware.

The reason cloud computing surprised me is because I've been arguing against it for many years. I hammered Larry Ellison in the 90s for the "network computer" idea. And I've been generally critical of "cloudwashing" and cloud-computing hype in the past decade.

Despite this, I've found myself increasingly using and benefiting from cloud-based solutions like Dropbox, Evernote, Carbonite and others.

(For my Google experiment, I will ignore my accounts on these services and switch to Google Drive and Keep.)

The challenge for me will be using Google Docs instead of my beloved Pages, the photo-editing tools on Google+ instead of my several Mac-based photo editors and perhaps most challenging of all, living without my carefully curated collection of iPhone and iPad apps and wandering into the Play Store, a stranger in a strange land.

It helps that I'm already a happy user of many Google services, including Gmail, Google+, YouTube and several others including, of course, Google Search.

Although Google Now just shipped for iOS, I'm really looking forward to the full Google Now experience on the Nexus phone and tablet.

I recently started using a good service called Friends+Me to autopost my Google+ posts to Facebook and Twitter (with links back to Google+), and I will leave this service operating in the background while I personally and directly interact only with Google+ as my only social network.

Things should get interesting mid-experiment: Google's developer conference, Google I/O, will take place in a couple of weeks. Google always peppers these annual events with surprises galore, including new initiatives, new services and new hardware, which they are known to give to attendees. I'll throw into the mix whatever new Google I/O stuff comes along.

Google may announce Babble, for example, an integrated messaging service that combines Google Talk, Gmail and Google+ Hangouts. And who knows what else they'll announce?

The dark horse prediction is that they'll even sell Google Glass units to attendees. If that happens, my experiment could take a delirious turn.

Whatever Google announces, I'll be taking my experiment to Google I/O and applying Google I/O to my experiment.

What I'm Trying to Prove Here

In recent years, Google has evolved from a search engine company, a one-thing company, to an everything company—hardware, software, services. I want to find out if it's really everything, to find out if you can really use only Google services without missing out on anything fundamental.

I want to compare Google's vision of computing against Apple's, to compare "open" vs. "integrated."

I also want to truly understand the state of cloud computing. Is it really possible to live in the cloud completely? What will I be surprised by? What will I miss?

My experiment was inspired in part by a similar project by Jeff Jarvis, the professor of journalism and blogger. Jarvis co-hosts a video podcast with developer Gina Trapani and Leo Laporte called TWiG (This Week in Google) on Laporte's TWiT network. (Full disclosure: I'm on the show occasionally.)

Jarvis uses a Pixel full time and carries an Android phone. For his abandonment of a "regular" computer and full-time use of the cloud-only Pixel, Jarvis' wisdom or sanity is humorously questioned, especially by Laporte, who takes the position that a browser-only laptop that costs more than most full-featured laptops makes no sense. For that price, you can buy a very good laptop that also has the Chrome browser and everything that runs in it. Plus, you get real applications and plenty of storage for getting real work done. So why would anyone voluntarily limit themselves only to what can be run from the cloud?

One theory that explains the Laporte-Jarvis disagreement is that word-oriented users like Jarvis (a writer and speaker) can get away with cloud-only computing, but processor-intensive users like Laporte (a radio and video guy) cannot.

I accept this argument, but think it should be expanded beyond the world of us content creators.

In other words, I think there's a reasonably large market for cloud-only computers, even expensive ones like the Pixel.

Let me tell you a true story.

The Case of the Missing Acquisition Project

A few years ago I was moderating conference panel on mobile security, of all things. One of the participants was a senior executive for a fairly major Silicon Valley technology company.

When he arrived for the panel, he looked like he was in shock, white as a ghost and acting distraught.

It turns out that on the flight to the event, the airline lost his carry-on luggage. That's right. His carry-on. With no space in the overhead bins, the flight attendant stored his bag somewhere at the front of the aircraft, and he never saw it again.

In that bag was a laptop containing all the details of a company acquisition, which this executive was in charge of. He hadn't done a laptop backup recently. Worse, he wasn't even sure that he had backed up some of the documents at all. These included a hoard of confidential financial information on both companies: trade secrets, salaries—you name it.

The executive was dying inside. He was in a remote city with little recourse for salvaging the acquisition. He had lost confidential data. He didn't know who "found" it or what they might do with it. The acquisition and possibly even his job were threatened. It was a disaster.

If he had been carrying a Pixel at the time (which didn't exist then, but bear with me), he simply could have used another computer—any computer—to log onto his Google account and continue on with the project. Whoever found the laptop wouldn't have access to any data, presumably. No crisis. No embarrassment.

Yes, you can use cloud backups and good security on a conventional laptop. But there's a certain class of user who just isn't going to do this.

Users are either non-technical, very technical or somewhere in between. They either hate to tinker with electronics, love to tinker or somewhere in between. And they either have no money to spend, money is no object or somewhere in between.

Many business executives I've come across have no time or interest in tinkering with, configuring, managing or maintaining their computers. Yet they do want a premium experience and are either willing to pay a lot or can simply expense a high-end machine.

There are many other types of users who want to maximize both simplicity and quality. My current belief is that a Pixel is far simpler to use than, say, any Apple laptop, and probably even simpler than an iPad.

The question is: How practical is it, really? How desirable? How secure? And how limiting?

I'm going to find out. And I'll tell you all about it here in the weeks ahead.

And with those words, I'm going to submit this column, kiss my MacBook Pro, iPad and iPhone each in turn, shut them down and put them lovingly in a box until June.

It looks cloudy ahead. Wish me luck.

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