Not a lot of us give much thought to the apps we use regularly. You grab your phone, open Chrome, and search for something on Google search. Maybe you are on your Macbook and you backup some images to your iCloud account. Most of us don't even consider that there are alternatives to the apps that we use because, well, we've been using the same apps and services for several years now.
You are free to use whichever apps and services you please. I'm quite thankful for that fact and only wish that, in some cases, there were more choices. The problem is that we've almost trained ourselves to ignore the competition, and the big companies that make the apps we all use the most are aware of this. As a result, a lot of these apps and services have become bloated, gather too much data, slow down the devices on which they are installed, invade our privacy on every imaginable level, etc. This is why we should look at the competition from time to time.
We should always be questioning and scrutinizing the apps and services we use. It is something I challenge you to make a habit. Ask yourself "Why do I use this?", "What other apps/services offer the same or similar experience?", and "What makes me want this app/service versus the competition?". If you take a second to step back and ask yourself those questions occasionally, you will be a better-informed consumer. That's a good first step!
Aside from the fact that you don't often give thought to the "other" apps and services out there, you also have to be concerned about your privacy. How secure is this app/service? How much data is this company collecting, and how are they using that data? How often have there been hacks and leaks from this service/company? These questions are not as easy to answer as just making the determination that you prefer Chrome over Firefox or iPhone over Android. That's what I hope to help you with today!
Below you'll find a list of alternative apps and services and my explanation as to why you should consider one over the other. It's not a complete list, but a good start to addressing some of the most commonly used apps and services. You are free to use whichever apps and service you like. I am only hoping to help you make a better, more informed decision!
Deny it all you want, but Google and Apple have been more and more evil over the years. They both have become increasingly anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and anti-free speech while collecting mountains of data on you. I will always steer you away from their products when I can.
For those of you that want the tl;dr, here's a simple list of what I'm about to go over in some detail:
- Browser - Brave Browser
- Operating system - Linux
- Email Service - Protonmail
- Mobile OS - Android
- Search engine - DuckDuckGo
- News feed - Inoreader
- Cloud storage - anything but iCloud or Google Drive
...and avoid MOST social networks (there are some good ones that I'll write about some day).
Brave Browser is my choice for the best way to browse the web. It is built on Chromium just like Google Chrome so it has a similar experience. In fact, you can even install plugins from the Chrome Store into Brave Browser. The main difference is that Brave Browser tries to block trackers for you. Most websites are tracking everything you do while you are on their site. Some of that is just for relatively harmless analytics, but some of it can be for serving ads or just collecting general data on you to sell to other companies. You may think it is all harmless, but that's not always the case.
Linux may be the least common operating system installed on laptops and PCs, but it is the most common OS on servers. There are a plethra of reasons for this, but the main reasons are security, cost, flexibility, and performance. All of these reasons apply to the desktop versions of Linux as well. Almost all Linux distributions are free, they are all built on the Linux kernel which is more secure and does NOT require antivirus software, they can do anything and everything you need them to do, and they are insanely customizable! If you have to have commercial software like Adobe products then you might look at Windows instead (my pick over Mac OS). Otherwise, you'll find that a lot of companies actually do have apps for Linux. I'm typing this from a laptop running Pop_OS right now in Brave Browser with Spotify, Slack, and VS Code apps running. There are several flavors of Linux called "distributions", but the ones I recommend for people new to Linux are Ubuntu and Mint. Also, Linux will make an old, slow computer run like brand new!
Protonmail isn't something I hear many folks talk about. Most people have their Gmail, Outlook/Hotmail, or Yahoo email addresses and don't think much about it. The ugly turth is that services like Gmail are known to run AI against your messages looking for tracking numbers, calendar appointments, etc. This seems harmless enough, right? The problem is that these services can also parse your messages to gather data on you to sell or use to determine which ads to show you. That's less harmless. The truth is that we don't know what other kinds of data might be getting collected from your email messages. Protonmail doesn't do any of that. In fact, it also offers the ability to encrypt your messages providing you with even more security. My only hang up is that Protonmail doesn't use IMAP/POP in a traditional sense so you have to have their mobile app to use it on your phone. There is a free tier, though, and you can pay for more features if you wish.
Android is my pick for mobile operating systems. I said I wouldn't steer you to any Google or Apple products, but here we are talking about a space that has no other serious competitors. Think of Android as the least-worst choice here. Compared to the iPhone, Android is much more flexible and has even been said to be more secure in recent days. The main draw for me is that I can use any app for anything. Don't want to use the provided keyboard? Download a new one. Hate the default messaging app? There's a ton of other options out there for Android. This sort of flexibility allows you to pick more secure alternatives to what apps you use, and that's the main reason I would pick Android over iPhone.
Google has become so popular and widely used over the years that, when most people want to search for something on the web, they most often say they'll "Google it". Nevermind that Google is only showing you want they want you to see and tracking EVERY single thing you search for. A good search engine used to be a difficult thing to create and launch. Not anymore. There are a few options out there, but I tend to steer people toward DuckDuckGo as I find it is just as fast and gives me just as good results, but I know it isn't censoring or tracking me like Google has chosen to do. Seriously, I've been using DuckDuckGo for about a year now exclusively and I don't even miss Google. You should try it out!
Being that most of us use our mobile devices for the majority of our internet related activites, it is safe to assume that most Android users use the Google app for their curated news feed and most iPhone users rely on, well, whatever Apple provides (I honestly have never used an iPhone so I don't know). These apps are well designed, highly functional, and installed by default so why not just use them? Well, the truth is that they work so well because the have gathered enough data on you through those devices to know what you are interested in seeing and what they want you to see. You're kidding yourself if you don't believe that tech companies don't try to influence your thoughts to be inline with what they want you think and feel. Regardless, you can have a nicely curated new feed without those apps. Honestly, any RSS feed reader style of app will do the job here. I recommend Inoreader because it find it simple, quick, and it has a good web app as well for use on PCs. A more widely known option here would be Feedly. These apps allow you to determine which sources you are interested in then aggregate the results into a single experience for maximum convenience.
Not unlike your news feed apps from above, your choice in cloud storage is likely influenced by which mobile ecosystem you chose long ago. iPhone users use iCloud and Android users use Drive because those apps were installed by default, work well, and offer a small amount of free storage. There are cloud services out there that have been pricing and are rock solid alternatives. Box, Dropbox, Backblaze, and iDrive are just a few. For the super tech-savvy that are willing to setup their own server, Nextcloud and ownCloud are good options too. As much as Microsoft is known to spy on Windows users, I would even recommend OneDrive over Google Drive or iCloud if you really want to go with a big player and need a ton of features. Again, Google and Apple make good products here, but they are Google and Apple and I won't tell you to consider products from either company unless there is no choice. Both are likely spying on your cloud and both services are popular enough to commonly be impersonated in phishing attempts.
This is honestly an area on which I will do more research. Expect an article in the future about which cloud services I recommend the most.
I know, I know. I already said to avoid social networks and most of you consider that a deal breaker. Live your life! Just know that most of the social networks apps are the biggest culprits for stealing and mining your data. Facebook even tracks you when you are other sites. There have also been studies done indicating that people become happier when they distance themselves from social networking. Plus, take a look at the permissions these apps want when installed on your phone. Companies like Facebook are basically telling you that they have the right to listen to your conversations whenever they please if you use their app. Why would you be ok with that? When you consider the invasion of privacy, the censoring of free speech, the performance hit these apps cause on your phone, and the fact that social networks are proven to make you less happy, why not just leave them in the past?
This post was only meant to be a general guide for replacing some of the most commonly used apps and services for the sake of security and privacy. Do what you will with the information! There are many other apps and services to be explored, and you can expect those to be covered in future posts!