Generally Speaking

I’m James – I’m a Google-olic

“Okay Google. How many Google apps do I use on this phone?”

“No, Google, I didn’t mean, ‘How many apps are in the Google store?’ – although I admit 2.7 million is pretty impressive. (If true.) I meant how much of your stuff am I actually using?”

“No – wrong again Google Assistant – I don’t want to know which apps are using most battery…”

Give up – I’m going to have to work this out for myself.

The reason I want to know, by the way, is because of the warning last week by Gmail creator Paul Buchheit that ChatGPT is going to destroy Google’s business model within 2 years. It made me wonder how addicted I am, just in case it’s as serious as it sounds.

So, here we go:

I’ll start with Gmail because I use it for all my email. A dear, much missed friend introduced me to it years ago when it was still Googlemail and showed me the richness of its features – coloured labels for different categories of messages, group-mailing, filters you can set to do a host of clever things. All of which I now use and depend on. With its incredibly efficient spam filters and so on I am simply not aware of anything like it. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine losing the instantly-searchable archive of every email I have sent or received since (pause to check) blimey! 2006. Or indeed, how I would ever rebuild the list of Contacts if Google went to the wall.

I organise my entire life with Google Calendar. Using different coloured calendars for different categories of events, some of which are shared with other people. Individual events can be set to remind me in advance, some to repeat, and some have notes, addresses or whole documents (I only discovered this feature recently) attached. And whether I access from phone, tablet, laptop or desktop, I always see the latest version. Magic. And again there is a lovely, searchable ‘diary’ stretching back years.

Search, the original thing that Google got so triumphantly right, is not really so indispensable to me because there are alternatives which supposedly avoid the adds and tracking. But then I have to bear in mind that that is how Google make their money and that is why everything they provide is free.

With that in mind I press on making my list: Google Maps gives me state-of-the-art route-planning/satellite navigation, complete with live traffic information – which is derived automatically, so I understand, from the movements of the countless Google users travelling about far below.

The closely-integrated Google Earth is that incomparable compilation of images which gives me, at the merest whim, an unprecedented satellite-to-birds-eye view of our planet. Or, if at night I care to look heavenward, Sky-map is there on my phone to tell me which stars I am looking at. Back here on the ground, Google Streetview, the product of a project of almost unimaginable ambition – involving special camera vehicles driving along virtually every road and backstreet in the world – lets me follow all those millions of routes, with 360°, zoomable vision, from the proverbial comfort of my armchair.

Google Drive provides a cloud base for office documents, including those in the in-house Docs and Sheets formats. When any of these are shared with members of organisations I belong to there is another kind of magic because we can all contribute to the ‘top copy’ in the cloud and watch each other’s edits, as they happen, ‘in real time’. And we are still years away from fully exploiting the potential of this revolutionary technology.

Google Translate is yet another extraordinary app, although I only use it occasionally and for a small handful of the 100 languages in its every-expanding repertoire. But when I do it is utterly amazing, dealing in the spoken word as well as text.

Although I do most of my reading from printed books, preferably beautifully produced ones, eBooks have their place too and for them I use Google Play Books. For podcasts I use Google Podcast. Working via Bluetooth directly to my hearing-aids they are a wonderful enhancement to any solitary walk.

YouTube and YouTube Music are both now owned by the parent company, Alphabet, so, although they are not free, I owe my videos and streamed music to Google as well. And I can play any music through our living room sound system because the unit came with Google Chromecast built in.

Then of course there’s Google Photos, another app I use almost every day, with innumerable clever features, and Lens is the way I scan barcodes and sometimes recognise and derive information about places and things.

Even more convenient than contactless credit cards, I now use my phone and Google Wallet (previously Google Pay) for touchless payments of all kinds.

Fit isn’t the full Fitbit of course, but it tracks my activity pretty well, and is surprisingly incentivising, and it came bundled with my Google Pixel phone. So I’m not looking that particular gift horse in the mouth.

The default browser on all my devices is Chrome. And last but very much not least, my mobile phone, in common with most mobile phones in the world, is powered by the Android operating system.

So the answer to my original question to Google Assistant should have been, ‘at least 24’, because I keep thinking of new ones to add to the list and I doubt I’ve finished yet. Anyway, it’s several times the number I was imagining when I started this exercise, and it is both astonishingly large and, if there is really some doubt about the future viability of Google, very alarming.

Clearly I have taken these services for granted as they have become deeply integrated over recent years into the way I live, move and have my being. In short, I need them. And I know I am not alone in this. In fact the only thing that is unusual about me is that I have taken the trouble to make this list, because I’m a bit of a nerd like that, and that I have begun to grasp the size of the potential problem. (Assembling all 24 icons was even more nerdish, and I hope you, the reader, are impressed by the beauty of the resulting display.)

The chaos of Elon Musk’s recent, bizarre acquisition of Twitter has awakened me, if not the whole world, to the intrinsic fragility of software-based IT corporations funded by advertising and controlled by unstable tycoons. It hasn’t happened to Twitter, yet, but the very word stability is anathema to the swirling climate of ephemeral corporations blasted into life by the invigorating tempests of Disruption.

But some human institutions do need stability and they do need to endure. The clue is in the word institution. Imagine if some corporation owned the rights to the English language, and to use it we could either endure a lifelong drizzle of advertising or pay for a premium subscription. And then that corporation was driven to bankruptcy by some ludicrously wealthy nutcase, and we were then required to converse in, to take an extreme example, Mandarin. Not good.

So I submit that Google, along with a few other IT corporations like Microsoft, have created services which have risen to the status of institutions – and the modern world really does need them to endure. But the modern world has got to work out how this may be achieved. As yet I haven’t seen the slightest sign that anyone is addressing this challenge, or even acknowledged the extent to which we are addicted to these services, unprecedented as they are in the history of humanity.

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