Getting Away From Google

It’s been well known for a long time now that when it comes to Google, you are the fee. Their services are often free at the point of entry, and remain that way. All you have to do is allow their algorithms to parse though your data; what emails you send, what you watch on YouTube, the events you attend – where, when, and why. (OK not why, but by that point they probably already have enough info to surmise that anyway.)

Some people fundamentally disagree with this approach, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s pretty cool when your apps guess what’s happening before you do, but once you realize that it’s because some vast set of algorithms has studied you, and a thousand other people like you, and probably now knows you better than you know yourself … things can get a little creepy.

I am, of course, simplifying a more complex situation, but even I get creeped out when I open up the YouTube app on my TV and discover videos suggesting things that have only been discussed around the apartment, never searched for on any device.

Personally, I more or less made my peace with the data aggregation a few years ago, and even invested in a ‘Google Phone’ – the famous (in tech circles) Pixel XL 2. A great device to be sure, but I found myself missing the slick design, apps, and integration offered by Apple’s products. I’m particularly a fan of the Apple Watch, something no Android-powered device has come close to matching.

I moved back to Apple silicon, but kept everything ‘data’ in Google. Gmail is an excellent email service, and I was particularly taken with Google Photos. At the time I had been keen to move to an email provider that allowed a custom domain. Google did, and along with their productivity offerings, it seemed like a great idea.

For the most part, it’s been good. I’ve had no real complaints with the service, other than being unable to be billed in USD when moving to the US, as I’d registered a business account for myself. However, the integration piece was not so strong – as you might imagine – with Apple hardware. The issues were mostly small ones, but became niggling and annoying over time.
Things like the Share Sheet allowing you to share a picture from Google Photos to another app, only for things to fall apart because the image had to be pulled from Google’s storage, compressed or altered in some way, and then shared. It became easier to find the image, save it to the phone, then share it. At which point I started to wonder … why not just put everything back in Apple?

Apple, for their part, have a very different stance on privacy than Google. Recognizing that not everybody wants their data shared around a global AI network, they’ve committed to measures that keep data truly anonymized, encrypted and, where possible, processed on-device.
This does put them at a certain competitive disadvantage because data after all is king, but with their vast wealth and engineering know-how at their disposal, they’re finding other ways to fill that gap in capability.

With my mind made up, I turned to migrating all my ‘stuff’ from Google to Apple. Naturally, it was not as straightforward as I would have liked. Google, for their part, make it easy to get hold of the data they store for you. Once you have it, however, you might wonder why they didn’t make it a little more sensible …

Mail
Mail is exported as a .mbox file, which is an industry standard file format and should be accessible by most, if not all, modern mail applications on the desktop.
However.
If you’ve used Gmail you’ll know that they love their labels. If you’re old school like me, you basically used labels just like folders to keep everything organized. If you’re like me in another way, then you have email dating back to the early 2000s, maybe even earlier.

Google’s .mbox file arrives as one giant bucket of emails, with absolutely zero way to categorize or otherwise manage them. In other words, it’s a complete and utter waste of time unless you’re one of those heathens who has thousands of mail items in their inbox. For my part, I had almost 40,000 emails. Completely useless without a way to sort them.

Thanks to the joys of IMAP, trying to move entire folders of emails was also useless, as the folder would move without the email content inside (using Apple’s Mail.app). I also tried Outlook on Windows, but it seemed to completely choke on the large volume of mail.

I ended up manually recreating each folder, then moving the mail items across folder-by-folder. Yes, it took quite a while.

Docs and Storage
One of Google’s strongest offerings lies with Google Drive and Google Docs, or the G Suite productivity suite. I had Google File Sync installed, so for every non-Docs file, moving was as easy as a file move operation inside of Windows Explorer from Google’s “My Drive’ to Apple’s “iCloud Drive”.
For every ‘document’ though (text and spreadsheet), I had to open the document on the web, export it as its equivalent Word or Excel version, and then delete the original file. More tediousness, and I didn’t even bother converting them again to Apple’s native Pages and Numbers files – most of my documents are archive and won’t be needed regularly.

Pictures
This was by far the worst, though I share some of the blame for the awfulness of the workflow.
I downloaded all my files from Google – all 450GB (yep) of them – and set to work. This was actually the first thing I did, so I sized my iCloud Storage requirements accordingly – purchasing the 2TB size – which later proved to be unnecessary.

I’ll just get to it. For reasons unknown to me, Google provide you with multiple copies of a lot of your photo/video data. I now have everything in iCloud, which tells me I’m using 147GB of data. I have removed a lot of crap in between then and now, but that’s a vast difference in file size!!

Apple aren’t blameless here either. The iCloud website only allows .jpeg uploads (despite the service supporting other formats) and will frequently throw errors that suggest bad files or bad formats when in reality the issue is down to a cookie issue on the webpage itself.
After shifting a ton of photos via the web, I turned to the Photos.app application on a MacBook. That supported more formats, but also occasionally suffered with the issue of ‘here’s the only error message we have, even though it’s not the issue’, and towards the end ran into a very strange issue wherein the application hung at uploading the last 20, and required a reboot of the machine to progress to the next one. 20 reboots later and finally it was done.

Sundries
Once my data was moved, it was all the little stuff left to change. Changing email addresses on tons of services, setting up a new email forwarding system in case I missed any, and so on. It’s actually been a helpful process, as I’ve shut down some accounts I forgot about and no longer use, consolidated others, and in some cases even moved to other services which I’d been meaning to do for a long time but just never got around to.

Something that surprised me was the small but significant number of vendors I came across who had no built-in mechanism to let you change your email address, and others where I’ve changed my account address but am still receiving emails to the old address.

Ultimately this was a lot of work for a mostly unnecessary switch. Partly I needed something to keep me busy that wasn’t work, but also I just grew tired of having my data and services hosted with one vendor that didn’t integrate quite as successfully with my hardware choices as they should have, when I also had the choice to move back to Apple and release the small micro-frustrations that came with trying to mash Apple and Google together in the first place.

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