Killed by Google: The best free alternatives to Google apps
Still mourning Picasa or Reader? Try these free alternatives to the many programs, services and apps Google has abandoned in recent years
It’s become a fact of web life that Google giveth and Google taketh away. Just as you’ve become reliant on one of its free tools for managing your photos, streaming your music library or getting your daily news fix, the search giant decides to put it permanently on ice.
Sometimes this happens because Google has launched what it believes to be (but often isn’t) a superior service, while at other times it’s simply because Google has lost interest in that product, even if its users haven’t. It is running a business, after all.
Fortunately, few Google tools are unique, and there are usually good alternatives available for its abandoned products. In this feature, we round up the best free replacements for tools that have been consigned to the Google graveyard over the last seven years, or that are about to be killed off very soon.
Google Cloud Print
Why Google killed it: Cloud Print, Google’s cloud-based printing solution, makes it possible to send web pages to printers from any device. Google announced plans to kill the service off late last year, with an execution date of 1 Jan 2021. The company didn’t give a clear reason for the closure, although it did say that Chrome OS, its cloud-based operating system, would be offering improved built-in printing controls.
What to use instead: Google suggests switching to one of its free printing partners, the best of which is PaperCut Mobility Print. There’s even a handy guide that helps you migrate to the service from Cloud Print.
Google Play Music
Why Google killed it: Google currently has two music-streaming services – Google Play Music, which is the default music player on many Android devices, and YouTube Music – but it now only wants one. Google has been warning users for a while that it will be shutting down Play Music and, in a blog post in August, it confirmed that YouTube Music will replace the service by December 2020.
What to use instead: Although Google would like you to switch to YouTube Music, and is making it as easy as possible to do so, now is the perfect time to move to a better choice. Spotify has a huge library of songs, with both free and paid-for tiers – and, like Play Music, it lets you import and play locally stored audio files.
Why Google killed it: Google has a number of different messaging apps and is trying to streamline its offerings. It shut down Allo last year (more on that later) and is killing off Hangouts Classic – its most popular messaging app, with more than a billion installs on Android – in December 2020. It might seem strange for Google to shut down its most successful service, but the company is focusing on business communication, which in the light of the pandemic-fuelled rise in working from home, seems like a smart bet.
What to use instead: Google wants you to communicate using Android’s built-in Messages app, or either of Hangouts’ direct successors – Google Meet or Google Chat (its Slack alternative for businesses). There are much better choices available, however. WhatsApp is packed with features including voice and video calls, is available for your phone, computer and the web, and your friends are probably already using it.
Google Chrome Apps
Why Google killed it: Not to be confused with Chrome extensions, Chrome Apps are hosted or packaged web applications that run using Google’s browser. They are downloaded from the Chrome Web Store and look much like a typical desktop app. The chances are you don’t use these, and that’s the reason Google decided to pull the plug on them. Support for them on Windows, Mac and Linux will end in December 2020 (Chrome OS users will continue to have access), and they will be killed off entirely by June 2022.
What to use instead: Chrome Apps are a nice gimmick, but in truth they don’t serve any great purpose. Rather than installing an app and running it in your browser, just navigate to the actual online service. You’ll get pretty much the same experience.
Why Google killed it: Google has a non-profit arm that aims to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges. One Today was an Android app that made it possible for users to donate money to charities and see exactly how that donation was going to be spent. Google killed it off at the start of February 2020, explaining that “in the last few years, we have seen donors choose other products to fundraise for their favourite non-profits”.
What to use instead: Thinking of You is a free app for Android and iOS that lets you send a thought to someone you know, along with a donation to one of its many supported charities, including Shelter, Stroke Association, Make-A-Wish, Kidney Research UK, Parkinson’s and Children with Cancer UK. You can also donate directly to charities, and Thinking of You gives all transaction fees to the charities on its app.
Why Google killed it: Google’s Play store is home to millions of Android apps, including many produced by the search giant itself. Datally was a useful free app (called Triangle when it originally launched in June 2017), that helped users manage their mobile data by viewing and blocking the activity of installed apps. Google never gave a reason for why it pulled Datally from the Play store in October last year, but it’s not the only app to vanish in this way.
What to use instead: Data Usage – Data Manager is a good free alternative for Android that can display daily data usage for apps you use and warn you if you go over your limit. It hasn’t been updated in over a year, but it still works fine with newer versions of Android.
Why Google killed it: There was a time when virtual reality seemed destined to be the next big thing, and if you couldn’t afford a full-fledged headset such as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, you could just drop your Android phone into a VR headset like Google Daydream instead. Developers didn’t flock to it however, and consumers didn’t buy it in any great numbers either, so Google ceased development, stating: “There hasn’t been the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped, and we’ve seen decreasing usage over time of the Daydream View headset”.
What to use instead: If you can afford it, buy a dedicated headset; if you can’t, you can pick up cheap phone-based VR headsets from Amazon and eBay. There’s also Google’s own Cardboard viewer which costs from just £15 (it’s only made out of cardboard, after all) and works with both Android devices and iPhones.
Why Google killed it: This app for Android and iOS was designed as a trip planner that could pull information on upcoming excursions from Gmail and offer day guides to over 200 major cities. Google killed off the Trips app, but still offers much of the same functionality in in Google Maps and on the web at google.com/travel.
What to use instead: TripIt is a very similar app available for Android and iOS that helps you organise your travel plans (when you have some again). Just forward your confirmation emails to TripIt and it will build a master itinerary for you, and provide travel stats and carbon footprint details. It also helps you get around and lets you keep colleagues and friends informed of where you are.
Inbox by Gmail
Why Google killed it: Inbox by Gmail provided a different way to access the search giant’s webmail service, and was designed to cut through the junk in a busy inbox and present you with only what’s important. You could even snooze emails for a later time. In shutting down Inbox, Google said it had been “a great place to experiment with new ideas”, but it now wants to focus on just Gmail.
What to use instead: If you miss Inbox’s clean design, then you can bring it back by installing Simplify Gmail. This Chrome extension was created by Michael Leggett, Gmail’s lead designer from 2008 to 2012, and the co-founder of Google Inbox.
Why Google killed it: Google+ was the search giant’s attempt to take on Facebook and Twitter, and although Google did everything possible to push it – including integration with the company’s other services, such as YouTube and Google Drive, and continual redesigns to make it easier to use – few people were interested and Google eventually threw in the towel, citing “low user engagement”.
What to use instead: Facebook or Twitter would be the obvious choice, but there are lesser-known services to consider such as the currently invite-only Webtalk or MeWe, which is a privacy-focused social network with no ads.
Why Google killed it: Google’s URL shortener was a useful service for shrinking long, unwieldy web addresses and making it easier for people to share links and measure traffic. Despite its popularity, Google made the decision to shut it down in 2018 (bit.ly/3kmiica) due to competition from other services and people moving from “desktop web pages to apps, mobile devices, home assistants, and more”.
What to use instead: Bit.ly is our preferred choice of URL shortener. It lets you shrink long URLs, customise the links, and view the number of clicks for each one – so you can quickly see how many people have looked at things you’ve shared. It’s free to use, but the paid-for version offers extra features.
Why Google killed it: Rather than be put off by the surfeit of mobile messaging apps, in 2016, Google decided the world needed two more and rolled out Allo – with Google Assistant baked in – and Duo (for video calling). While Duo still exists (for now), Google killed off Allo in 2019 to focus instead on its Messages app.
What to use instead: You could use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or any of the many other available chat apps. Telegram is a good alternative to Allo, but focuses more on speed and privacy.
Why Google killed it: Although Google’s Chromecast is best known as a device that can stream video content directly to your television set, there was also a version that could be used to cast audio directly to your speakers from an iPhone, iPad, Android device or PC. It cost £30 and came with a 3.5 mm analogue stereo patch cable and power adapter, but was killed off after the company introduced its own range of Google Assistant-powered smart speakers. The technology lives on in the main Chromecast, however.
What to use instead: A smart speaker such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s own Home/Nest is great for playing audio, but if you want to ‘cast’ music from your other devices, then the Roku Express streaming media player (£25 from Amazon) is ideal. It can stream video at up to 4K Ultra HD, and also lets you cast music (and photos) to your TV.
For a software solution, try Nero Streaming Player for Android or iOS. The free app can cast music (as well as photos and videos) to your smart TV or any other UPnP/DLNA compatible Media Player.
YouTube Video Editor
Why Google killed it: YouTube Video Editor was a web-based tool you could use to edit and enhance your movies and apply some effects before sharing them on YouTube. While it was a great idea, YouTube says as few as 0.1% of creators bothered with it (many probably didn’t know it existed in the first place), so Google decided to drop it.
What to use instead: It’s better to edit video directly on your PC rather than in the cloud, and Shotcut does this with no fuss. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux, this free tool can handle all the main media formats and the editing is done on a multi-track timeline. When you’ve finished making your movie, go to the Export tab and select YouTube to upload and share your video in MP4 format. See page 28 for details.
Why Google killed it: Google Now was a card-based search system for iOS and Android that let you view all sorts of relevant information. Cards would appear when you needed them, and it integrated with your installed sites and apps. Google Now also served as the first iteration of its digital assistant, and was summoned by tapping your phone’s button or by saying “OK, Google”. It was eventually replaced by Assistant, which offers two-way spoken interaction.
What to use instead: If you’re heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem, use Google Assistant. If Apple is your preferred choice, then Siri will be more suitable. For everyone else, Amazon Alexa is the digital assistant you should opt for. It’s embedded in a number of Amazon products, such as Echo and Fire TV, and can do everything from answering questions and giving you the news to controlling your lights and reading you audiobooks.
Why Google killed it: Picasa was a big favourite for many people, and provided an easy way to organise and edit your photos. It included lots of fun extras such as face recognition, collages and filters, but was eventually replaced by its cloud-based successor, Google Photos.
What to use instead: While you can (and probably do) use Google Photos to back up your phone’s photos to the cloud, there are desktop services that are more in keeping with Picasa’s original design, features and spirit, such as DigiKam, which was recently updated and now lets you organise your photos by face. See last issue’s Workshop 1 for details.
Why Google killed it: Before Google+ became Google’s main focus, the search giant had Orkut, an online community that was created by employee Orkut Büyükkökten. It was designed to help users stay in touch with friends and was hugely popular in India and Brazil.
It’s not hard to guess why Google closed it. As the company’s engineering director Paulo Golgher said in a blog post: “Over the past decade, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger and Google+ have taken off, with communities springing up in every corner of the world. Because the growth of these communities has outpaced Orkut’s growth, we’ve decided to bid Orkut farewell.”
What to use instead: While the obvious choices are Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you should also consider the Android/iOS app-based Hello, which is a new social network founded by Orkut Büyükkökten and a small group of ex-Google engineers. It’s different from other services in that it aims to tie people together, based on their common interests.
Why Google killed it: Subscribing to RSS/web feeds using Google Reader could save you a serious amount of time and effort, especially if you visited a lot of websites on a daily basis. Instead of having to go to each site individually, Reader would fetch all the latest headlines for you, aggregating them in an easy-to-read layout. Also, because it was web-based, you could view your subscriptions from anywhere, including on your phone.
Sadly, in 2013, Google made the shocking decision to kill off Reader, stating: “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined”.
What to use instead: In the run-up to Reader’s closure, plenty of rival services surfaced as potential successors, but many have since fallen by the wayside. One that has continued to serve users well is Feedly, which lets you add and organise feeds and tweets, has light and dark modes, and offers mobile apps and browser add-ons. The free version is perfectly adequate for most users, but there’s a paid-for Pro edition with extra features and speedier feed updates from $6 (around £4.50) per month.
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