Trying to be less Google dependent

I’ve been uncomfortable with Google’s privacy policies for a long time.* I still remember the first time I was irked by the ads in the sidebar of my gmail account. It wasn’t long after I had moved from Belgium to the US  when Google figured that out and started targeting me with ads aimed at Belgian expats in the US. Ever since then each time I see a very specific ad in the sidebar, I consider switching to another email service. Needless to say, I consider switching quite often.

The trouble was that the alternatives to Gmail were just not cutting it for me. I tried using MobileMe for a while but that was before I owned enough iDevices to really make that work well. I also considered using the email account that comes with the web hosting for Made by Fred. But I just couldn’t deal with the awful webmail interface.

What follows is a long and geeky explanation of the trials and tribulations it took to come up with an alternative to Google for my email and calendar needs. Long story short, it’s complicated, technical and not for people who want things to ‘just work’. I’m afraid those people will have to make some compromises or stick with Google for now.

When Apple announced that MobileMe was going to integrate with iCloud and that they were going to make it free, I thought I was finally going to be able to move (at least a little further) away from my Google dependency. After a few months of waiting anxiously for iCloud to become available, it finally arrived. Unfortunately, switching wasn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped it would be. A few crucial features were either missing or —again — just not cutting it. Apple tries too hard to lock you into their ecosystem. iCloud support for older OS’es is limited and it even if you are using Lion, iCloud only stores iWork documents. Too bad, but I have Dropbox for online storage and I’m very happy with it. I was looking to move my email and calendar over to iCloud and even that turned out to be a little complicated. Not only was it nearly impossible to get iCloud to sync properly to my ‘pre Lion’ computers, iCloud — unlike MobileMe — no longer supports external email aliases. This meant I wouldn’t be able to use my @madebyfred.com email aliases.

Of course, hardly anything is technically impossible, so when Google changed their privacy policy a few days ago, I decided to finally dig in and figure this out. So what did I do? I opened a new tab in my browser, clicked the Google search box in my toolbar**, and started Googling my way to an acceptable solution. It actually took less effort than I expected (Google’s great like that). There were several separate issues to deal with. I’ve listed them below and I’ve linked to the articles that helped me sort them out.

First, I wanted to get my iCloud calendar to sync with iCal on my iMac running Snow Leopard. Here’s a link to an article on how to do that: macworld.com. This worked like a charm. Granted, I had some trouble finding the dedicated number for my account that’s needed for the Server Path, but turning the calendar to public for a minute gave me access to the number. Just read the comments under the article on Macworld if you have trouble.

Next, I had to set up my @madebyfred.com email with iCloud. The solution I found works reasonably well, but there are some caveats. Email sent from the web interface will show the @me.com address and not the alias. I’m mostly using the Mail app for sending email anyway and from there email sends with my alias in the from field. Another thing that might be an issue for some people is that for this to work you need an alternative to iCloud’s SMTP server. I used my hosting provider’s SMTP, but that might not be an option for you. One last, but important, thing to remember is that you need to redirect your email alias to your @me.com address. No big deal, just one more step to take. Here’s a link to a comprehensive article explaining how to do all this: chrisbowler.com.

On my iOS devices, I still sync iCloud calendars and contacts with the built in settings, but for my email I use the manual IMAP setup. My Snow Leopard computer has both iCal and Mail configured manually as per the above instructions, and my Lion Macbook has the default iCal setup, but a manually configured IMAP account for email.

I told you it was complicated and geeky…

* I know ads are necessary to provide ‘free’ services. But I’d be happy to pay for some of Google’s services in return for better privacy. I also think I’m very reasonable when it comes to finding a balance between protecting my privacy and allowing targeted ads.
** I’m open to suggestions for an acceptable alternative to Google’s search engine. Until then, I tell myself that information about my search history is slightly less private than my email or calendar data. It’s really only when all of it starts to come together and is linked to my account rather than just my IP that I become paranoid.

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