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Degooglifying (Part IV): Calendar

This post is part of a series in which I am detailing my move away from centralized, proprietary network services. Previous posts in this series: email, feed reader, search.

Finding a replacement for Google Calendar has been one of the most difficult steps so far in my degooglification process, but in the end I’ve found a bunch of great, libre alternatives.

Beyond the basic criteria for free network services, I was looking for:

  • desktop, web and mobile clients
  • offline access, especially for mobile
  • multiple calendars
  • access controls for sharing calendars
  • ability to subscribe and share calendars with other servers
  • applicable for business and personal use

First Attempt: SyncML using SyncEvolution and Funambol

I started with SyncML, an open standard for syncing calendar and contact data. SyncEvolution is a great SyncML client, with both GUI and command line tools available for GNOME and Maemo GNU/Linux, and Funambol is an AGPL SyncML server, with an Android client.

I setup Funambol and migrated from Google Calendar in July 2011, using SyncEvolution on my N900 and my laptop, but there were a bunch of problems. It was unstable around the edges, not handling deletes very well, and sometimes choking and failing with certain characters ( ” maybe?) in event titles. When I tried to switch my parents over in Android, it was a nightmare trying to figure out where the sync was failing, and they eventually moved to Google Calendar instead. SyncEvolution only syncs with Evolution on the desktop; there’s no mature SyncML solution for Lightning. The Funambol free software edition felt like a bit of an afterthought as well, with poor or outdated documentation, and a crippled, totally useless “demo” web UI. There was no calendar sharing or access controls either. Plus, Funambol is a pretty heavy application, targeted at mobile carriers, not someone who wants to run it from their living room.

SyncML with Funambol and SyncEvolution allowed me to leave Google Calendar behind, but I ended up living off my mobile calendar, using Funambol essentially as a backup service. I had no web client, no shared calendars, and eventually stopped syncing to Evolution on my laptop. Part of the problem was Funambol, but part of the problem was also SyncML, which seems to be a clunky standard, designed for an older paradigm of syncing with offline mobile clients.

I quickly realized that CalDAV was the better open standard.

The Solution: CalDAV

CalDAV is an extension of WebDAV, an internet standard for remote access to calendar data. It’s a more modern standard that SyncML — though SyncML does have better support on older mobile devices. (There’s also CardDAV for contacts, but I’ll leave that for a future post.)

Servers: SOGo, ownCloud or Radicale

However, there are a ton of CalDAV servers.

Here are my favourites so far:

Application Pros Cons
SOGo
[demo]
Works with anything via connectors; well-integrated with Thunderbird/Lightning, and web UI modelled after Lightning; Ubuntu/Debian repos UI isn’t super pretty; comes with a webmail client I don’t want; heavy, took some effort to install (e.g. made a custom MySQL user auth table, in the absence of an LDAP server)
ownCloud
[demo]
Very alive; support for contacts, photos, music, etc.; Ubuntu/Debian repos Newer (immature when I first tried in 2011); seemed more of a personal than business tool, but that may have changed.This has changed. As of 2015, ownCloud is strong, mature and thriving.
Radicale Simple, elegant, light-weight For sysadmins: no UI

I tried a few others, but I wouldn’t recommend them:

  • Funambol CalDAV connector: In theory, best of both worlds with SyncML and CalDAV support, but I couldn’t figure out if there was an updated stable version, how to get it working with Funambol, etc., and this would still carry the Funambol issues and lack a web client or CardDAV support
  • DAViCal: seemed robust, but also onerous to configure and administer, and the web UI is only for administration (no web calendar client). This could work, but it just felt a bit onerous to use.
  • Update: lnxwalt mentions PHP Web Calendar, which I’d missed. I tried the online demo, but it looks/feels pretty ~2005: awkward and not fully-featured UI, focus on old standares like iCal (rather than true CalDAV?), with a CVS wishlist that includes SyncML support and a Java servlet, and import/export from Palm as a key feature, etc.

Others I didn’t bother to try:

  • Zimbra: Seemed like heavy-duty Groupware with a bunch of things I didn’t need or want — though could make sense if that’s what you’re looking for.
  • Horde (Kronolith): I did try Horde, but using the old interface a few years back. That UI felt 10+ years old, but it’s since undergone a complete overhaul and I haven’t looked at it since. Also, a groupware suite, which may be a plus or a minus. However, I don’t think it uses real CalDAV
  • Bedework: Java, seems heavy, without any obvious benefits or easy packaging
  • Apple Calendar and Contacts Server: while Apache licensed, it really doesn’t seem to be designed to enable other people to run the software — I didn’t get very far looking into this
  • Update: Jean Baptiste Favre has a great tutorial on implementing SabreDAV, a PHP library which implements WebDAV and its CalDAV and CardDAV extensions, if you want to build your own solution.

I’m using SOGo. Though, that’s partially because it was the most comprehensive solution that I had working at the time when my wife went back to work after maternity leave and we needed sharable calendars again to coordinate scheduling for childcare. But SOGo also has some nice, more advanced features, like the ability to subscribe to remote CalDAV feeds on other servers through the web UI.

I’m pretty happy with SOGo, though I’ll certainly be revisiting ownCloud and Radicale at some point. When I first tried ownCloud, it was immature, but it’s since grown a lot. And when I first tried Radicale, it was using a “strange” ACL model, but that’s been overhauled in 0.8. DAViCal was working, though it wasn’t a pleasure to configure, and I’m sure there are a few other workable servers I passed over.

I highly recommend ownCloud. At the end of 2014, I switched from SOGo to ownCloud, and have not looked back. ownCloud has a better web UI, has a much stronger and vibrant community, is alive and growing, is much easier to host (e.g. repos for popular GNU/Linux distributions, and GLAMP stack), and is useful for more than just CalDAV (I’m already using it for file syncronization and CardDAV as well).

Desktop Client: Lightning

Since I’m a Thunderbird/IceDove user, Lightning is the obvious choice for a desktop client. We also use Thunderbird at the office and in my family. Lightning also supports Google Calendar, so just like with degooglifying email, you can switch your frontend and backend in separate steps.

The Evolution calendar is pretty awkward. I tried it when I was using SyncML, but it didn’t last long. There are other options too.

Web Client: SOGo, ownCloud or CalDavZap

I’d prefer a server with a web client, like SOGo or ownCloud, but for a standalone CalDAV web client (e.g. to pair with Radicale or DAViCal), CalDavZap [demo] seems pretty cool.

Mobile Client: SyncEvolution or aCal

Maemo: The reason I spent so much time on SyncML was that there was no CalDAV client for Maemo, but now SyncEvolution supports CalDAV/CardDAV sync!

Android: Use Davdroid. It syncs CalDAV and CardDAV to native AOSP storage.

aCal is an Android CalDAV client, and a replacement for the proprietary Google calendar application. It works really well, but the UI feels really awkward and non-native. [Update: There’s also CalDAV-Sync, which I’d skipped over because it’s proprietary, but maiki pointed out that the developer at least intends to open source it eventually. I’m not sure if the Android Calendar is free software or one of the proprietary “Google experience” apps?] Both sync to local storage for offline support.

Conclusion

It took me a long time to figure this out, especially since I was focused on SyncML at first, but I’ve finally fully replaced Google Calendar with CalDAV solutions. SOGo, ownCloud and Radicale are all great CalDAV servers. SOGo and ownCloud have built-in web clients, but there’s also CalDavZap as a standalone web client. Lightning is the obvious cross-platform desktop CalDAV client of choice, and SyncEvolution and aCalDavdroid provide mobile clients for Maemo and Android.

The good news is there are plenty of options. As a bonus, most of these come with CardDAV support (which will be the focus of a future post), and ownCloud handles photos, music, and other files as well, so you may get more than just a calendar. Or, if it’s just a calendar you want, light-weight solutions like Radicale and CalDavZap give you just that.

I’m just thrilled to have finally figured this out.

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Degooglifying (Part III): Web Search

This post is part of a series in which I am detailing my move away from centralized, proprietary network services. Previous posts in this series: email, feed reader.

Of all Google services, you’d think the hardest to replace would be search. Yet, although search is critical for navigating the web, the switching costs are low — no data portability issues, easy to use more than one search engine, etc. Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward libre web search solution ready yet, but switching away from Google to something that’s at least more privacy-friendly is easy to do now.

Quick Alternative: DuckDuckGo

In on sense, degooglifying search is easy: use DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo has a strong no-tracking aproach to privacy. The !bang syntax is awesome (hello !wikipedia), the search results are decent (though I still often !g for more technical, targeted or convoluted searches), it doesn’t have any search-plus-your-world nonsense or whatever walled garden stuff Google has been experimenting with lately, and it’s pretty solid on the privacy side. After just a few days, DuckDuckGo replaced Google as my default search engine, and my wife has since switched over as well.

The switch from Google Search to DuckDuckGo is incredibly easy and well worth it. If you’re still using Google Search, give DuckDuckGo a try — you’ve got nothing to lose.

But… DuckDuckGo isn’t a final destination. Remember: the point of this exercise isn’t for me to “leave Google,” but to leave Google’s proprietary, centralized, walled gardens for free and autonomous alternatives. DuckDuckGo is a step towards autonomy, as web search sans tracking, but it is still centralized and proprietary.

Web Search Freedom

A libre search solution calls for a much bigger change — from proprietary to free, from centralized to distributed, from a giant database to a peer-to-peer network — not just a change in search engines, but a revolution in web search.

YaCy

Last summer, I ran a search engine out of my living room for a few months: YaCy — a cross-platform, free software, decentralized, peer-to-peer search engine. Rather than relying on a single centralized search provider, YaCy users can install the software on their own computers and connect to a network of other YaCy users to perform web searches. It’s a libre, non-tracking, censorship-resistant web search network. The problem was that it wasn’t stable or mature enough last summer to power my daily web searches. I intend to install it again soon, because as a peer-to-peer effort it needs users and usage in order to improve, but an intermediate step like DuckDuckGo is necessary in the meantime.

Although YaCy is designed to be installed on your own computer, there is a public web search portal available as a demo.

Seeks

Seeks is another interesting project that takes a different approach to web search freedom. Seeks is “an open, decentralized platform for collaborative search, filtering and content curation.” As far as I understand, Seeks doesn’t replace existing search engines, but it adds a distributed network layer on top of them, giving users more control over search queries and results. That is, Seeks is a P2P collaborative filter for web search rather than a P2P indexer like YaCy. Rather than replacing web indexing, Seeks is focused on the privacy, control, and trust surrounding search queries and results, even if it sits on top of proprietary search engines.

Seeks also has a public web search portal (and DuckDuckGo supports !seeks). As you can tell, its results are much better than YaCy’s, but Seeks is tackling a smaller problem and still relying on existing search engines to index the web.

Conclusion

DuckDuckGo, though proprietary and centralized, provides some major privacy advantages over Google and is ready to be used today — especially with Google just a !g away.

But web search freedom requires a revolution like that envisioned by YaCy or Seeks. Seeks seems like more of a practical, incremental and realistic solution, but it still depends on proprietary search. YaCy is more of a complete solution, but it’s not clear whether its vision is technically feasible.

I intend to experiment with both of these projects — p2p services need users to improve — and continue to watch this space for new developments.

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Degooglifying (Part II): Feed Reader

This post is part of a series in which I am detailing my move away from centralized, proprietary network services. Previous posts in this series: email.

Next to email, replacing Google Reader as my feed reader was relatively easy, though I’ve chosen to use the move as an opportunity to clean out my feed subscriptions, rather than doing a straight export/import. I’ve replaced Google Reader with two free software feed readers: Liferea (desktop) and Tiny Tiny RSS (web).

A reading list can be very personal, and it can also be very misleading out of context. For example, my reading list suggests all sorts of things about my religious and political views, about the communities to which I may be connected, etc. Though, it would take some analysis to try and figure out why I subscribe to any particular feed. Is the author’s view one I espouse and whole-heartedly hold as my own? One I find interesting, challenging, or thought-provoking? Or one I utterly disagree with yet want to learn more about?

There is something private about a complete reading list, much like the books you might check out from the library or the videos you might rent from a store. As we get more of this content through the internet, it’s easy for these lists (and even more behavioural data about how we interact with them) to be compiled in large, centralized, proprietary databases, alongside all sorts of other personal information that would not be available to a traditional Blockbuster or public library. Besides the software fredom issues, this is another revealing personal dataset that I can claim more control over by exercising software freedom, rather than dumping it into a big centralized, proprietary database. Both software freedom and privacy issues are at play here.

Desktop Client: Liferea

Liferea is a desktop feed reader for GNU/Linux. Google Reader was my first feed reader, so a desktop feed reader was a bit of an adjustment, but there are a few things I really like about it:

  • Native application: It integrates well with my desktop, with something like Ubuntu’s Messaging Menu, and it’s a client that feels somewhat familiar in GNOME.
  • Control over update frequency: One of the things that bugged me about Google Reader is it constantly checks for new content, whether or not you want it to. Sometimes, I don’t want to see anything new until tomorrow. It’s nice to be able to click update, read, and then let it be until I choose to update again. (Though, the downside is missing material if you don’t update often enough.)
  • Integration with Google Reader / Tiny Tiny RSS: This is a killer feature. You can use Liferea to read feeds through the Google Reader API, and recent versions have added support for a tt-rss backend as well. This helped with my transition because I could use Liferea as a front-end for Google Reader before I was prepared to migrate my feeds, to test it out, to ease the transition, etc. And, I will be able to use Liferea and tt-rss together to have both desktop and web-based clients.
  • Embedded Web Browser: This is also a killer feature. Websites that don’t have full-text feeds and only offer a content snippet are annoying in Google Reader, because you have to leave Reader to see the full content. But, in Liferea, you can tell it to automatically load content for a feed using the embedded web browser instead of just viewing the snippet, or hit enter on any feed entry to load the URL using the embedded browser. It even has basic tabbed browsing support, so you don’t have to flip back and forth between your web browser and your feed reader. This makes reading content from non-full-text feeds easy without leaving Liferea.
  • Integrated Comments: Liferea can detect comment feeds on many blogs, and it shows a handful of comments underneath entries. Combine this with a quick enter key to visit the web page with the embedded browser, and you no longer have to leave the feed reader to participate in the comments. This is a nice step up from the usual isolation of a feed reader from comment threads.
  • Authentication support for protected feeds: This is a useful feature for subscribing to protected content, such as an updates feed on an internal wiki.

I tested Liferea as a Google Reader front end, then migrated subscriptions group by group (giving me a chance to re-organize, though I could have just used an OPML export/import), and once I upgrade to Liferea 1.8, I’ll connect it to tt-rss.

Other Desktop Clients: RSSOwl is a free software, cross-platform (Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux) feed reader, which also has Google Reader integration. I have only tried this briefly, so that I could recommend it to Windows users.

Web Client: Tiny Tiny RSS

Tiny Tiny RSS is a web-based feed reader, similar to Google Reader, but free software that you can run on your own web server. There are some feeds I read all the time, and others I’ll skim or catch up on when I have a chance. For the must-read feeds, it makes a huge difference to be able to read them from my mobile computer. With Google Reader, I used grr, and there is a mobile web interface. I migrated my must-read feeds to tt-rss instead of Liferea so that I’d have easy access to them while away from my laptop, while still having the ability to use Liferea when on my laptop with it’s tt-rss integration. I’m moving more and more feeds into tt-rss, though I plan to leave some less frequently updated, less important feeds or feeds that are difficult to read from my mobile in Liferea only.

Some cool features:

  • Publish articles to shared feed: Google Reader had a shared articles RSS feed, and I’d piped that into blaise.ca. tt-rss has a similar RSS feed, which I’ve also been able to include on my website
  • Mobile web interface: tt-rss has a mobile web interface for webkit browsers powered by iUI. With Macuco on my N900 or the Android web browser, it works quite well — though, only for full-text feeds.
  • Filters: With tt-rss, you can create filters on feeds. So, for example, I am automatically publishing articles from the Techdirt feed that I’ve written, or I can auto-delete posts for a particular series or author that I’m not interested in to custom tailor a feed to my interests. It’s very useful for automating certain actions or reducing noise on a high-traffic feed.
  • Custom CSS: I suppose you could customize Google Reader’s styles with a GreaseMonkey script or something, but tt-rss offers custom CSS overrides and multiple themes out of the box, which is great for setting some more readable default colours.
  • API: tt-rss has an API, which allows for Liferea integration, an Android client, etc.
  • Authentication support for protected feeds: Like Liferea, tt-rss provides support for feeds requiring authentication.

As with Liferea, tt-rss gives me control over how frequently updates run, since I schedule the update job. But that control also comes without the downside of missing content if I’m away from my feed reader for a while; unlike a desktop client that needs to be open to retrieve new content, tt-rss does so in the background from the server, so it can still track new entries while I’m away. It has the benefits of Google Reader’s persistent background updates, while still giving me control over frequency and scheduling. I have the update job set to run a few specific times through the day, and tt-rss gives you the option to set an even longer update interval for any given feed.

While I was initially migrating from Google Reader to Liferea, Tiny Tiny RSS is quickly becoming my primary feed reader, while Liferea will become my primary desktop client for tt-rss and home for less frequent/important/non-full-text feeds.

Other Web Clients: NewsBlur is another web-based, free software feed reader, which is based on a more modern web stack and seems to have some neat features. I have yet to try it, and I’m not sure of the state of its mobile or API/desktop integration, which are two things I really like in tt-rss. It’s worth taking a look at though for sure. NewsBlur.com has a hosted service, if you aren’t able to run your own web server or don’t have a friend who’s running one.

Conclusion

My migration away from Google Reader is essentially complete. I have less than a dozen feeds remaining there, but mostly old or broken feeds. I no longer log into Google Reader to read anything, though I’ve got one more round of cleaning to do to empty my account. I’m currently split between Liferea and tt-rss, but with Liferea 1.8, I’ll be able to integrate the two. I also have other libre options to explore with NewsBlur and RSSOwl.

There is nothing that I miss about Google Reader, and if anything, with an embedded browser, native desktop options, integrated comments, control over update scheduling, feed filters, and authentication support for protected feeds, I have a lot of useful features now that I didn’t have with Google’s proprietary service — nevermind more software freedom and less surveillance.

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Degooglifying (Part I): Email

I’ve begun to write about free (libre) network services, and the hazards of being a tenant on the web instead of a property owner. I began slowly moving away from Google in 2009, but I’ve accelerated that process since the launch of Google+. I thought I’d begin to share my process of degooglification.

To be clear, I still generally trust and respect Google, and I do believe they’re generally less evil than most, but…

  1. Despite great support for open source software, they remain a proprietary software company at their core. Google is a friend to open source infrastructure, but not to free (libre) network services. Specifically, it’s the proprietary network services I’m degoogling from.
  2. The sheer amount of data — email, contacts, documents, calendar, RSS feeds, social graph, phone calls, photos, GPS location, nevermind web searches… — aggregated into a one single account with a proprietary service provider is an obviously bad idea. Even if Google never intends to do anything bad with it, they can make mistakes. Even if Google never does anything bad itself, it’s a single vector for attack from an outsider. And it’s not your account.

Email is one of the easiest services from which to degooglify. It’s also a good example of a multi-step transition.

Changing the front-end

The first thing I did was to stop using the Gmail web interface. I configured my Gmail account in Thunderbird, which I was already using for other email accounts. Google’s commitment to data portability often makes it easy to switch your front-end software before switching the back-end, which can make a transition much smoother. Rather than cutting over cold turkey, you can ease into a new interface. My Gmail account is still active, but it rarely sees any important email anymore. I’ve transitioned 99% of my email to other accounts on domains I control (like this one).

Changing the Backend

Gradually, I started using my blaise.ca email addresses instead of my Gmail account, until eventually I wasn’t getting much email through Gmail anymore. With my Gmail account configured in Thunderbird, it was easy to archive the contents on my computer. You can access Gmail labels as IMAP folders and just copy email from one account to another, and Thunderbird will even offer to synchronize a local copy of your Gmail account. I never used Gmail contacts, but an export and import to Thunderbird would get your data out (more on contacts another time). Lastly, I’m still monitoring my Gmail account via Thunderbird, but I could set an auto-reply and/or forwarder if I really wanted to force that last 1% over. I will probably do that eventually.

Other Considerations

There are a few other perks of a Gmail account that are pretty easy to get from libre alternatives:

  • Hosted: Not everyone is going to run their own mail server, or have a friend or family member who does. But there are hosted, libre services, like riseup.net
  • Storage space: in 2004, 1 GB of email was a huge game changer. Today, it’s not very hard to get that kind of storage space on a server for cheap.
  • Chat: Google uses the open standard XMPP for its chat service. I run my own XMPP server, and there are public Jabber services like jabber.org. I’ve simply added my Gmail contacts to my blaise@blaise.ca XMPP account. More on chat another time.
  • Conversations: The Conversations add-on provides Gmail-style conversations inside Thunderbird.
  • Spam filtering: Gmail has a good track record on spam filtering, but SpamAssassin, ClamAV and a greylisting policy can produce great results on your own server nowadays. I don’t get any more spam to my blaise.ca inbox than I do to my Gmail inbox.
  • Webmail: I love Thunderbird, but not everyone wants to use a desktop client, and you’re not always on your own computer. Roundcube is already a great free software webmail client, and it hasn’t even hit 1.0 yet. Many hosting providers already offer Roundcube to their customers.
  • Mobile: With IMAP, my email is easily accessible from and synchronized between Thunderbird, Roundcube, and my mobile computer’s IMAP client.

Email is probably the easiest thing to degooglify. It can be a smooth, gradual transition, and there are lots of good alternatives, as well as benefits from leaving Gmail. Over the next while, I’ll share my ongoing efforts to degooglify other aspects of my online life.

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