It is hard to go online today without touching one or more Google products or services. If it is not search, it may be email, YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, Docs, or Calendar. Google has truly blanketed us with their web-based app offerings. Heck, even the Google Doodle is a conversation topic!
In this editorial, I shall discuss how you can kick the Google habit, what I am using now as alternatives and why you probably won’t be able to replace certain Google products today. Ready to move away from Google? First, some background.
Some of the reasons I personally decided to look for alternatives:
- Google became a part of virtually everything I did online. I used GMail, Google Reader, Google Finance, Blogger, Picasa, Picasa Web, Google Docs, Google Search, Google Calendar and Google Maps. I felt uncomfortable putting such a large portion of my online life in Google’s hands.
- Google morphed from the cool little startup building fun stuff for consumers, to a dominant public company whose revenues essentially came from just one product. That’s the key most (96%) of its revenues (and profits) came from search advertising. In other words, it needed other ways to make money. The most obvious way to do so would be to extend the arm of advertising, their main revenue-generating product, into other products. I realized I was the merchandise.
- Google seemed to get Apple and Facebook envy. Apple was growing rapidly across all their product lines and at very high profit margins, and Facebook was taking eyeballs and key talent away from Google. This led to some bad attempts to mock Apple and Facebook publicly, which of course delighted the Google developer and enthusiast community but came off as being negative to me. If you make a great product, you don’t need a negative campaign.
- Aside from philosophy, some of the competing products started becoming better, and Google’s products started getting worse (more on that within my descriptions) prompting me to start Project Un-Google which was an effort to use fewer and fewer Google products, hopefully reaching a point where I did not depend on any Google product at all.
Whether it is for philosophy, or hedging your web app bets, it is good to know there is life outside Google when it comes to products and services online and offline. There is usually a strong resistance to change, especially if you have a long history with a product. There is a high cost for transferring the old stuff, and learning your way around a new product/service. However, these challenges are not insurmountable, and I hope you take a look at some or all of the products I list here as an alternative to Google. If you have ideas of other products I may not have mentioned, please let me know!
Popular Google products
Here are some of the Google products/services I will be comparing to competition:
I realize Google has many more products, appsand services, but I did not look at products like Book Search which are very niche. My attempt here is to look at the commonly used products and services only.
The first and foremost product to evaluate is of course Google Search. I started using Google almost as soon as it was made available to the public. Yahoo! was the king at the time, and Alta Vista was decent, but Google was simple, deep and fast. Google’s results were always better and it was able to find obscure stuff which Yahoo! was somehow unable to find. Coincidentally, at that time, I was working as a database developer. I often had to look for help on certain issues, and Google, with their beautiful usenet groups layout and search, was fantastic.
Then, Bing happened. Originally it was thought to be just a re-branding of MSN Search or Live Search, but it started innovating very rapidly. The Bing team realized they could not compete solely on the index size, so they quickly made the search competition a usability game. Compared to Google’s plain white screen, Bing had a beautiful home image. Compared to the basic set of links as part of search results, Bing started becoming verticalso it could display search results based on the type of search (hence, the justification for being a decision enginecompared to a search engine). Some examples where Bing is decidedly different:
- Travel: Bing incorporated farecastingto predict if it is a good time to book or if it may be better to wait for a few days to actually purchase. Bing also created Destination Pageswhich provide an excellent overview of the various popular travel destinations, all in one page. They incorporated reservations as a feature, so you could search, determine if it is a good time to purchase and make the booking all within one interface/action. Bing became much more than just search.
- Visual Search: Bing created Visual Search which allowed users to get beautifully laid out visual results for common search terms like NFL players, and applied the same interface for shopping for gadgets like laptops, cameras, etc. The items covered by Visual Search has expanded rapidly and even includes things like iPhone and iPad apps!
- Entertainment: Another example of a verticalcreated by Bing is Bing Entertainment which provided details for TV shows, music and movies including the ability to view air times (or show times), lyrics and make reservations, all from one place within Bing. Just like Travel, Bing Entertainment would become a one-stop shop for all actions you are most likely to take when you start searching for, say a movie.
- Video search: Video search is cool because it allows you to preview the video by just hovering the mouse over the search result video thumbnail. This user experience is in line with the philosophy that you don’t need to go to multiple sites if you are trying to make decisions. Bing itself would let you do a lot of the work so you can, you know, make decisions quickly.
- Other innovations: I could list other innovations individually and go on and on, but suffice to say that Weather, Local, Events, Social (which looks at Facebook public posts and twitter as well) are only a few parts of Bing which seem to have out-innovated Google. To say that Google has been out-innovated in searchis saying something and was hard to believe just a couple of years back.
- Spam: Here is one of the biggest reasons to reconsider Google Search. Since Google is established as the #1 source for traffic for websites, and since a lot of companies rely on Google ads (via AdSense) for generating revenue, there is a huge incentive to get the website content to be such that the site shows in the top results for some targeted keywords (and hence, the huge industry for Search Engine Optimization, or SEO). As a result, for a lot of common search terms, a lot of the results on Google are essentially the equivalent of email spam worthless results which clutter the page making it difficult to identify real, good results. Bing also suffers from this problem, but since it is the smaller player today, not many companies are targeting Bing, so Bing’s results are mostly spam-free. Google has recently rolled out their low quality content handlingalgorithm update called Panda but as long as there is money to be made, people are going to find ways to get around algorithm updates.
Bing Fare Predictor
Bing Travel Destination Page
I switched about a year or so ago, and I have never looked back. I have almost never missed Google and I actively recommend Bing. Microsoft’s close relationship with Facebook has made it possible to not only get information about search results which my Facebook friends may have Like-d, but in some cases, it also makes it possible for me to share some search results back to Facebook directly from within Bing. The latter piece is powerful in cases like movie or shopping recommendations. I recently used this feature asking my Facebook friends if Rio 3D was worth it. I got 5 responses in 30 minutes which helped me decide it was not worth it. Very powerful.
As for alternatives, it is only Yahoo! at this point (for English at least) and their results are, or will be soon, completely sourced by Bing, so there is no point discussing Yahoo!. Blekko, DuckDuckGo and Wolfram Alpha are super-niche and I have left them out of the discussion.
This one is tougher to explain. GMail is nothing but loved by everyone who uses it. It is fast, simple, innovative, spam-free and costs nothing for up to 10 users and very little beyond 10 users. It has mobile clients which can use multiple protocols like POP, IMAP and even Exchange (thereby enabling push contacts, email and calendar).
Good alternatives do exist, though. Not just for being not Googlebut also because they offer compelling benefits.
Yahoo! Mail has unlimited storage, connection with social networks, pretty good search (including searching for attached photos and documents) and an excellent web app. However it fails miserably when it comes to non-web clients. It does not offer free POP/IMAP and in fact, does not offer Exchange Active Sync at all. Yes, they are somewhat of a first class citizen on the key mobile platforms (via the use of custom IMAP) but on the desktop you are left to use some third party proxy type of applications or pay for Yahoo! Mail Plus. If you don’t mind the small yearly charge for the flexibility, it is a viable competitor although it offers very little in terms of inbox management (not just spam filtering, but also bulk mail management).
Hotmail on the other hand, has made tremendous improvements to catch up with GMail. The original, and still the most used, web email provider was relegated to the bottom of the pile after it earned the reputation of being spam-filled, slow and of limited functionality especially compared to GMail. Recently they have implemented several updates like the ability to Sweep messages to file away bulk email like newsletters, availability of sub folders, Office Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint on the web), photo integration with email, email aliases to avoid being spammed and most importantly, having almost no spam in the inbox anymore. In addition, they have implemented Exchange Active Sync for mobile access, and have made their Calendar and Contacts tightly integrated with the email app. Combine these updates with the ability to sign up with a custom domain and unlimited storage mailbox at no cost, makes Hotmail a serious contender if you are looking to move away from GMail.
Finally, the service I ended up choosing, is Office 365. This service is the new version of hosted productivity and collaboration applications from Microsoft. Before Office 365, Microsoft required a minimum of 5 users to sign up for such a service, but with Office 365, they are allowing even a single user to sign up. It is not free, but at $6/user/year and a 25GB mailbox, I am ok paying the charge because not only do I get SharePoint and Lync in addition to email, calendar and contacts via Exchange, but also, Microsoft has a financially backed 99.9% uptime guarantee. Since the service is Exchange, I get all the benefits of the control and flexibility like enforcement of various policies, which was until now limited to corporate IT departments of large enterprises. Mobile is also a no-brainer in this case since Exchange Active Sync naturally is included. Office 365 is a compelling alternative to GMail, and a no-brainer if you are already paying for GMail business edition.
I am currently in the free period of the Office 365 beta and I absolutely love it. However, I am seriously also considering going to Hotmail with custom domains, which can also be a good alternative. The reason being, it gives me a free and simpler alternative to GMail, without taking any major functionality away. If I see no use for SharePoint and/or Lync with Office 365, I may start investigating Hotmail with custom domains a bit more.
Just like GMail, there is a lot to like about Picasa. It is fast, it is functional, free and relatively easy to use. It also comes with Picasa Web Albums which is the photo (and video) sharing site accompanying Picasa, the desktop software. The web album storage is limited to 1GB but adding storage is inexpensive and if you use Google+ and an Android phone, pictures up to 2048 pixels do not count towards storage capacity (and get uploaded automatically from the phone to Picasa Web).
I started using Picasa almost as soon as Google bought it (that’s also when I came to know of the software). At the time, it was way better than the other Windows-based software including the free Photo Gallery application. Just before our first child was born, I was lured into the Apple world and I got an iMac which came with iLife. iPhoto is a beautiful application which, along with the general simplicity of Mac OS X, was a delight to use after using Picasa. All the functionality of modern picture/video management (people tags, geo tags, face recognition, quick edits, detailed edits, organization by events, etc.) in an application which feels like it is part of the operating system. If you have a Mac, you already have this software and is a fantastic alternative to Picasa. iPhoto does offer sharing photos/videos to the web, via Apple’s MobileMe and also to Facebook, flickr, etc. There is also a PicasaWeb uploader from Google which allows you to upload pictures directly to PicasaWeb from iPhoto (although, if you are reading this to un-Google yourself, you can ignore that last bit ).
After using iPhoto for a bit, I realized that it is not easy to interoperate with a PC. Since I had Windows PC’s in addition to the iMac, I wanted to be able to see the iPhoto pictures/videos from other PC’s but that was only possible easily with iTunes sharing and not via folder sharing. Also, in order to reduce redundancy, I wanted to store my iPhoto Library on a network-attached storage device, but while that was possible, it was very complex to enable a Windows PC to see the contents of the iPhoto Library. There were a lot of times when I had to actually export pictures from iPhoto just to use them outside the Mac ecosystem. This difficulty led me to explore other options besides iPhoto.
Around this time, came Windows Live Essentials along with an excellent Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) update. WLPG now included a ton of new features like face recognition, photo fuse (to merge parts of pictures from multiple pictures to create a perfectmoment), panorama creation, people tags (which can optionally map to Facebook), and upload to most of the popular web sharing sites like flickr, Facebook, YouTube, Picasa Web (using plugins), etc. WLPG is also different from iPhoto in that the tags are stored back into the jpg file as EXIF metadata instead of being stored in a separate proprietary database file like with iPhoto. This feature is awesome because then the pictures become truly portable and I don’t have to rely on one PC or one application to manage my collection.
I have been using WLPG on my Windows 7 PC’s which allow me to store my entire collection on an external drive and just point the PicturesLibraries on all the PC’s to that network location. Doing so eliminates redundancy and enables me to consolidate my collection to a central location and at the same time provides all the relevant metadata to any PC which browses the pictures.
If you have a Windows 7 PC, there is no reason to look anywhere else besides WLPG and if you have a Mac, you are perfectly fine with iPhoto. Both these programs are excellent by themselves and can easily replace Picasa.
Various ribbons in Windows Live Photo Gallery
Picasa Web, the web album companion to Picasa has a few competitors too. First of all, the free version of Picasa Web only allows 1GB of storage. As of today, 20GB can be bought for $5/yr and 80GB can be bought for $20/yr. Flickr Pro provides unlimited storage for $25/yr (there are small discounts if you sign up for multiple years). Facebook is becoming a popular photo sharing destination as well, with 250 millions photos uploaded each day. Since the past few months, I have been exclusively sharing my pictures on Facebook and the result is I see way more interaction with my friends and family on some of the pictures than I get on flickr. I always publish pictures with limited visibility (on flickr as well as on Facebook) and then share my albums to people I want to share with. Since everyone I want to share my pictures with, is on Facebook already, I see it being the best sharing service for me.
Flickr Pro is a great service because for $25/yr you get unlimited storage so you never have to worry about hitting your limits. The flickr website unfortunately still seems to be stuck in the 90′s and it is hard to navigate (compared to the other comparable services). I have started using it less frequently because Facebook seems better but also because most people I want to share with, are not on flickr or Yahoo! and as a result I have to resort to creating Guest Pass every single time. Creating a Guest Pass also limits the interactions on the shared photos because my friends and family who are not on flickr cannot comment or rate the photos.
However, as a replacement for Picasa Web, either Flickr Pro or Facebook would be adequate. There are other newer services like 500px (and increasingly, services like Instagram) which seemed to have gained some market share, but I have not used them, so I cannot comment. Photobucket and Smugmug are both excellent services and can be considered good alternatives as well.
Google Calendar is, like GMail, much loved by users who use it. There is really nothing wrong with the product, but it is a product which works very closely with email (you receive invitations typically via email) so if you are not going to use GMail, you can look at the calendar product attached to the email program of your choice be it, Hotmail Calendar with Hotmail, Yahoo! Calendar with Yahoo! Mail or Exchange Calendar with Office 365.
Hotmail Calendar, when your Live ID is linked to Facebook, has a distinct advantage over GMail Calendar in that it populates Facebook events in your calendar, including birthdays. I find this feature very helpful and is in fact one of the reasons I started using Hotmail Calendar more than my Exchange (Office 365) Calendar. Hotmail Calendar also has the capability to capture To-Do’s which also get sync-ed with mobile phones via Exchange Active Sync, so it becomes a pretty good replacement for GMail Calendar in all respects.
Google Docs is a very hot product suite both in terms of apparent adoption, but also in terms of competing against Google’s arch rival Microsoft. Google Docs include Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Drawings, and a neat feature, Forms. The Docs team has also been very busy adding features to the various products in the suite. Collaboration runs in the blood of the product suite. So why would you want to look elsewhere? First, after Google discontinued Google Gears, there is no way for Google Docs to be edited when disconnected from the internet. Yes, HTML5-based offline storage mode is coming soon, but until then, it is useless without the internet. Second, if you use Microsoft Office on the desktop, and use advanced formatting in your documents, there is a chance you will lose the fidelity of the document as you move from desktop to the cloud and back.
The biggest competitor for Google Docs is Microsoft’s Office Web Apps. Office Web Apps are the online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint which, per Microsoft’s claims, preserve the fidelity on the round tripthat is desktop to cloud and back. Office Web Apps are also free like Google Docs, and they are neatly integrated into Hotmail, Facebook (via docs.com) and Windows Phone. Office 365 also includes Office Web Apps for free. Combined with the desktop versions of Excel, Word and PowerPoint, Office Web Apps are a much better set of productivity apps than Google Docs, especially if you are going to work on your documents offline and even more so if you work with Microsoft Office.
Apple has been ramping up their iWork suite as well and they are cloud-enabling their products. I have not personally used these products, but presumably, if you use Pages, Numbers or Keynote on your Mac, you could make iWork work just like Microsoft Office works with Office Web Apps. The downside, at least for now, is a lot of people use Microsoft Office and there is potential for loss of fidelity going from Microsoft Office to iWork just like there is when you open a Microsoft Office doc with Google Docs and make the round tripfrom the web to the desktop and back.
I have been using Office Web Apps since it launched and am quite happy with the suite. I only hope the team iterates faster (we have seen some updates but not at a pace Google Docs releases updates).
Update: Just saw this Computerworld piece comparing Google Docs, Office 365 and Zoho. Thought it would give some perspective.
Google Finance is Google’s excellent and free service which allows you to get a complete picture about investing including quotes, charts, top stories, news items related to certain tickers, stock screeners, portfolio watcher, etc. It is fast, it is simple and very functional. If you were looking for alternatives, there are two excellent options: Yahoo! Finance and Bing Finance.
Yahoo! Finance is awesome because it has been doing all of what Google Finance does, for a very long time, and also provides syndicated content from various other personal finance-related properties. The site is simple, fast and very functional. Bing Finance on the other hand did not have similar functionality until recently. Bing Finance, much like other parts of Bing, has seen functionality ramp up quite well and is now a worthy competitor. Some of the key differentiators in Bing Finance are StockTwits.com streams, Trefis estimates, Seeking Alpha commentary, TheFlyOnTheWall updates and stock comparison.
I was using Yahoo! Finance until very recently, but after the most recent Bing Finance update, I have started using Bing Finance more. Of course there are specific sites you can visit like MarketWatch or TheStreet but those sites do not offer the depth and breadth of features that Yahoo! and Bing offer, and for the most part, the content on those sites does get syndicated into the portallike sites like Bing Finance and Yahoo! Finance.
Blogger was a pioneer in self-publishing. It has evolved tremendously since the time it was purchased by Google and now it is a full-fledged content management platform with all the modern features one needs in a blogging service. However, Blogger has competition from the low-end (simple content-sharing services) to the high-end (full content management systems) and it does feel like they are somewhat stuck in the middle trying to stay true to their original users but also trying to match the features that some of the younger startups are building into their products.
On the low end (and low is absolutely loosely used here), there are services like Posterous and Tumblr. These services grew out of the need for the casual user to share pictures, videos, etc. on the internet rather than for a serious blogger. Both posterous and tumblr have excellent email-to-post features and media gets rendered inline on the website with beautiful themes and galleries. Both have also ramped up their mobile experiences so it is extremely easy to post and view media from mobile phones. I use posterous to post pictures from my phone and sometimes, links to YouTube or other such services. I also have an account on Tumblr but I am just warming up to it. Steve Rubel recently deleted his old blogs and moved to Tumblr and in a blog post he detailed why he did so.
On the high end, it is clear that WordPress is dominating with recent stats showing they power 14.7% of the top million websites, and 22 out of every 100 active domains in the US. WordPress provides excellent tools for multi-author websites and is usually an early adopter of many new API’s provided by popular services like Twitter. WordPress offers self-hosted, open source software as well as a platform on wordpress.com for casual bloggers. Many popular servicees like TechCrunch, GigaOm, etc. run on WordPress and with the support of a thriving ecosystem, WordPress has established itself as a serious content management system in addition to being an excellent blogging platform.
I moved my two personal blogs from blogger to WordPress a few months ago and I like it a lot so far.
Google is a late entrant into the web browser game but Chrome has iterated very quickly and it is now arguably the fastestbrowser in the market. It also forms the basis for Google’s ChromeOS, a browser-based operating environment for netbook-style computers which they call Chromebooks. Chrome led the way for minimalistic UI and have been trendsetters in the industry in various ways, like hiding the address bar, proposing the removal of wwwin URL’s, etc.
However, Chrome is the only browser which has not implemented (or even supported) a do not trackinitiative. Firefox, Internet Explorer 9 and even Safari are either already supporting or have announced they will support the functionality to give users a choice of limiting what information websites can track while browsing. Given that most of Google’s revenues come from advertising, it is not surprising that they are hesitant in supporting such an initiative. If you have a problem with this lack of privacy controls, especially with the browser becoming the operating system in a lot of ways, it is time to look for an alternative.
With Windows 7 having an HTML5-enabled, standards-compliant browser in Internet Explorer 9 and Mac OS X having a similarly HTML5-enabled browser, I see no reason to go outside these two browsers. If you do want an alternative on Windows, Safari is available on Windows as well. However on a Mac, your best bet for an alternative to Safari would be Firefox.
Firefox’s biggest pitch of late has been the fact that they are not tied to any company which may have an ulterior motive Microsoft and Apple with their OSes and Google with the advertising/tracking. I have been frustrated with the startup performance and the bloated nature of Firefox in the past, and so I have given up. On my Windows PC’s, I have IE9 as the default browser, and I use Safari as my backup/alternative in case it is needed.
Google Maps is another amazing product from Google which went from nothing to awesome in an extremely short period of time. They have continued to improve upon the product and have dominated the market not only by the standalone product but also via their API which is now all over the web as well as in GPS devices and such.
However, Bing Maps has been adding features rapidly and for most common tasks it does as well as Google Maps and in some cases, like Streetside View, better than Google Maps. Bing also has an interesting concept of including map appsalong with their maps to help in tasks like Parking Finder, showing OpenStreetMap, find cheap gas, etc. Yahoo! Maps is still around and it does serve the basic needs of seeing a map and getting directions. Mapquest, to my surprise, is still around. So there are plenty of choices unless we switch to mobile where OSes have their default maps set from the factory.
If you switch to Bing Maps, like I have, you should not miss much, if anything at all.
Google Chat is available via GMail and it works just like any other web-based IM app should. It has competition from Yahoo! with its Yahoo! Messenger in Yahoo! Mail and Windows Live Messenger inside Hotmail. While Google Chat is interoperable with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger works with Windows Live Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger works with Yahoo! Messenger as well as Facebook chat. While a lot of IM client choice is driven by where most of your friends are, I think going with Windows Live Messenger is a safe choice since it not only connects you natively to Yahoo! but also to Facebook chat, even using the web messenger version. Most of your friends, if not all, should be on one of those three services and you will have a single service to use.
Of course there are multi-protocol apps like Trillian and Meebo which allow you to connect to multiple services within one client. I used to use Trillian desktop client for many years before switching to Meebo since it was web-based and required no client or any workarounds for firewall issues. Recently, I have started using Trillian’s excellent web-based client since they made it available for free. There is not much to choose between Meebo and Trillian, except maybe that Trillian is a Flash application whereas Meebo works with HTML without any plugin.
You may lose some of the desktop client-specific features but I think going with a web-based, all-purpose service like Meebo and Trillian will simplify your IM life.
What is not replaced yet
I have realized through this project un-Google that most of the Google products are easily replaceable, but there are some products which do not have a good replacement yet. I list them below, with a quick explanation why I think they cannot be replaced yet.
There are three key features of Google Reader which make it impossible to be replaced:
- Web-based RSS reader: Google Reader is web-based, so you are not forced to keep your read/unread status in sync between computers. Also, because it is web-based, you don’t have to install an application if you switch PC’s. The application as well as the data is in the cloud, making it very easy to move between computers.
- PubSubHubBub support: This protocol allows for websites to push their updates to Google Reader via a publish/subscribe mechanism, making refreshes extremely fast for sites which support this protocol and for clients which can understand it. Google Reader understands this protocol so a lot of feeds update much quicker on Google Reader than other RSS readers.
- Clients on any device/platform: I follow about 175 feeds, so it is important that I am able to triage my feeds fast and from as many places as possible. Granted, one of the advantages of being a web-based reader is that I can log in from anywhere and triage, but when I am on the go, it is better to do this on a mobile phone where I prefer a native app. Google Reader clients are available in various forms on all mobile platforms, so no matter which smartphone I buy, I would be able to go through my feeds very quickly, and be in sync with the web version.
I have not found a credible alternative to Google Reader. A popular web-based reader is Netvibes which is catered to casual RSS consumer with its dashboardemphasis and magazine layouts. I like to power through my feeds, so Netvibes seemed very slow to me. I also tried My Yahoo! and My MSN but those are also catered to the casual user and of course they don’t have great mobile versions to read on the go. There is also no way to just mark one article as read, or share just one article on such services.
Update: I just came across a very promising web-based service called NewsBlur. It has a neat interface, seems quite fast (faster than Netvibes but slower than Google Reader because it is not as minimalistic as Google Reader) and has sharing options to share articles with twitter, Facebook and Instapaper/Read It Later. It also has an iPhone app in beta, an Android app being built by a third party developer and to my pleasant surprise, a Windows Phone app being built by another third party developer. This service allows 64 feeds for free and has a premium version which goes for $1/month, $2/month or $3/month (donation-ware). I am going to actively try this service and see if it can replaced my RSS consumption, at least on a PC, for now. So far, I am really liking it.
There are several video sites on the internet like Vevo, Dailymotion, Vimeo and Viddler but none have the scale, the depth and the breadth of YouTube. This service started exclusively with user-generated (and of course pirated) content but has slowly evolved into a much larger video store. YouTube now has movies, TV shows and music (although the collection is not that deep yet) and since the last year they have started a little bit of live streaming as well.
Despite having a lot of competitors, it does seem like YouTube has the critical mass, the scale and a huge brand recognition, making it extremely difficult to be replaced.
Google Voice is a relatively new product which came from Google’s acquisition of Grand Central. It allows you to set up a telephone number and use it like a permanent email address. Several neat features come for free, like automatic forwarding to multiple phone numbers, quiet/Do Not Disturb mode, call screening, voice mail notifications and transcription and a ton of third-party mobile apps to work directly with Google Voice. There are competitors in the enterprise space (which are not free and cost a lot, in fact) but I have seen very little competition in the consumer space.
Update: Two more products which I forgot to mention here which were brought to my attention by Tom Reestman are Google Analytics and Feedburner. Both of these products are now utilities which have become a must for any website operation, and at the same time, have really no competitor of note. I use Google Analytics for my personal blog, and am actually extremely impressed with how much functionality they provide for free. I have stopped using Feedburner for quite some time now, relying instead on RSS (and corresponding statistics) provided by Posterous and WordPress.
There are several other Google products which a lot of people use, but I did not consider because I do not use those much. For example, Google Shopping, Google Checkout, etc.
Of late Google has been under a lot of fire with their real namespolicy enforcement especially after they launched Google+. A lot of people who used to have perfectly running Google accounts under pseudonyms, had their accounts disabled and/or suspended because they did not have their real name listed. The issue here was that it was not just the Google+ account that was impacted, it was every single Google service they used which was suspended. As a result there has been a lot of talk about diversifying your digital services so that you are not putting all your web apps eggs in one basket.
I am hoping this series has helped you in starting to think about alternatives to Google and if you have started along those lines already, to identify some specific replacements.