Open Source Alternatives to Google

Monday Feb 7th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Google has a vise-grip on the Web. Are there really open source alternatives to everything it offers?

Is it feasible to drop Google for a period of time in exchange for unfettered open source alternatives?

When I first pondered the notion of such an idea, I figured I must be losing my mind. Drop Google? The search giant, regardless of how well-intentioned it may be, has an octopus-like hold on the Internet – its tentacles are everywhere.

Oddly enough, though, it turned out to be easier than I expected. Let’s look at the mindset, software choices and habit changes needed to make this idea doable.

Dropping Google

Considering Google's contributions to the open source world, why would anyone want to stop supporting such a company? Well, the problem with Google is that despite their support of open source developers, their track record with privacy concerns is spotty.

Perhaps even worse, the fact is that we are becoming entirely too dependent on Google products over those from smaller vendors. Everything from document management to revenue generation is almost entirely tied to Google these days. Ask anyone using the Web regularly and the odds are huge they're using at least one Google product.

So when we think of dropping Google products, we're really saying that you're going to be changing your natural behavior when using your computer. Can open source software seriously meet this challenge head on?

It turns out that it really comes down to one thing: software.

The software lineup

Which specific tools and applications are viable options to replace their Google-powered counterparts? After much searching, I ended up with a compilation of known open source applications and one tool that is just another search engine.

Face it, just because we're trying to break the Google habit doesn't mean that starting a new search engine from scratch is in order. Instead let's use existing open source solutions and see if they have what it takes to replace their Google-based counterparts.

Chrome replacement: Initially I looked into Chromium, but found that it's still too much of a Google product. So clearly that wouldn't work. Finally after many hours hunting, I settled on Firefox from Mozilla. Yes, Firefox uses Google search by default. Luckily this can be remedied easily by simply switching to something else for handling search queries.

Google search replacement: Don't shoot the messenger folks – no, technically DuckDuckGo isn't an open source search engine.

But after looking into managing my own search engine, I decided that DuckDuckGo might be the best alternative to Google after all. In addition to offering a great API, DuckDuckGo does something very important that Google does not. DuckDuckGo doesn't track you. They also don't collect any privacy-harming "cookied data" on you, either.

Gmail replacement: I honestly thought I was out of luck finding a Gmail replacement. Luckily it turns out a trip to SourceForge was all that was needed. I found an open source Webmail solution called Roundcube.

Everything you could want from a webmail client from threaded email to multiple sender identities is available within this software package. The only thing I found missing was a list of hosting companies supporting Roundcube, and perhaps indications of spam filtering. Apart from these quibbles, Roundcube looks awesome.

Google Reader replacement: At first I figured I was going to be subjected to a desktop RSS client to replace Google Reader. It turns out that this wasn't going to be a problem at all. There's a Web app called NewsBlur that not only feels like a true Google Reader replacement, it's also open source and imports content from your existing Reader account. How's that for awesome functionality?

Google Talk replacement: Finding a replacement for Google Talk was brain-dead simple, I just needed to install Ekiga! Using Ekiga is a natural fit as it supports open protocols like SIP and will work on both Linux and Windows.

The only downside I could find is getting other people to install it. Without the second party making that installation happen, you'd be have only a number of short one-way conversations.

Google Docs replacement: This replacement was perhaps the most difficult so far. Sure, one could stick to the proprietary route and use one of the countless alternatives in the collaborative space. But the idea is to use open source software as the alternative. After extensive searching, I finally located something called the "TeamDrive extension" for Open Office.

The good news is that TeamDrive is supporting the open source office suite Open Office. It would also stand to reason this will be carried over to Libre Office in the future as well. The bad news is that the extension itself is freeware – it's not open source at all. Surely we can give kudos to the extension developers for selecting Open Office rather than Microsoft Office, right?

Google Picasa replacement: For me this option was fairly obvious. I wanted to offer something to replace Picasa that isn't bound to Linux only, so I chose digiKam, which runs on the KDE desktop. And because KDE apps can run on Windows, Linux and OS X, using this software seemed like a solid choice for most advanced computer users. For the less advanced machine, however, this could be a barrier to entry.

The search engine conundrum

As mentioned above, I felt that in order to realistically get away from Google search in this little experiment, I needed to opt for something like DuckDuckGo. Considering their ideals on privacy and the fantastic search results being provided, I figured why not?

But one cannot ignore that I broke a cardinal rule here. I said that I needed to have open source alternatives to Google offerings. Clearly my above search engine choice doesn't meet this criterion. However at the same time, I needed to find an open source search engine that was truly offering "Google like" benefits -– not merely some random search engine program I found on SourceForge.

It took some digging, but I found perhaps the most amazing thing since Wolfram|Alpha. Allow me to proudly introduce YaCy, an open source P2P/decentralized search engine.

Not only is it a fully functional search engine that doesn't rely on a company to run it or servers to host it. But YaCy is also cross platform ready. This means you can have access to a search engine that crawls the Internet for Websites of interest, without actually having to support any one entity.

Eye of the tiger mindset

Like anything in life without a big corporate backer, in replacing Google you have to be determined to make a go of it without something "warm and familiar.” With the possible exception of those working for Google competitors, finding the gumption to look at viable alternatives outside of the Googleplex isn't as easy as we might like to think. Even more intense is trying to make this shift while using as much open source software as possible in its place.

The question of our capacity to keep Google from our lives is a tough one. Can someone truly drop Google for open source replacements? As shocking as this might sound, yes, it's possible. You simply have to be willing to make the needed changes in your day-to-day habits. That and be willing to take a walk on the wild side of computing.

ALSO SEE: Eight Completely Free Linux Distros (And One More)

AND: Top 20 Open Source Applications to Cut Business Costs

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