Google have announced that legacy Apps for Domains (AfD) accounts will be closed. Back when Google was pushing them (hard), these free accounts allowed you to use Gmail with your own domain (often now called a vanity domain) as well as Google's suite of tools.
I, apparently, have been an AfD user for 11 years
Curiously, the Gsuite Legacy subscription only claims to date back to 2013 - I guess there was some kind of change on Google's end around then (presumably renaming it from Apps for Domains to G Suite).
Although the free accounts are going away, Google continue to offer this functionality on a paid basis in the form of Workspace (previously G Suite). Apps for Domains users will receive a discount for the first year (So the
Google Workspace Business Starter tier will be $3/user/month).
To be fair to Google, they stopped providing free accounts in 2012, and have continued to support AfD free accounts for 10 years since then. But, to be fair to the users (including me), that doesn't mean they can't be criticised for bringing it to an end (especially ham-fistedly and on relatively short notice).
Like a lot of other AfD users, I've still not actually received a notification of the impending change - there's been no email and there's no notification in my domain dashboard. The only clue (other than the news stories) is that the "Upgrade" page now offers the migration prices.
I wrote some time ago about the steps I was taking to break the Google addiction, so this felt like a prompt to look at other options within the market.
This post shares some of the things I've looked at/considered, as well as an overview of the things that make these Google accounts particularly "sticky".
Our Productivity Needs
There are currently 5 accounts active within Apps for Domains/Gsuite/Workspace.
Our main usage, really, is email - with a modicum of Docs usage. We don't really use Drive (beyond storage of those few docs) as file and media storage happens via Nextcloud.
One of the non-negotiable requirements is that email needs to support wildcard and/or lots of aliases, as I tend to create service specific accounts.
Google are offering discounted pricing until Jul 21, 2023:
It's free until July this year (presumably to encourage us to upgrade now rather than waiting for the free period to run out first), and then half price for a year after that, brining the
Workspace Business Starter plan in at $3/£2.40 per user, per month.
But, your mail provider is supposed to be a long-term commitment, so I'm ignoring the promotional pricing and sticking to their normal prices, because that's what I'd be paying on an ongoing basis. So, for us, that's
5 users x £4.60 = £23/month £23 x 12 = £276/year
As a side note, it's curious that they don't appear to have offered a similar discount on the Annual Plan (i.e. paying upfront). It's a little surprising, as you'd have thought they'd want to push up-front commits - it might be an oversight, or it might be a sign that they're planning on playing with prices later.
Why not just pay Google?
Let's get the obvious question out of the way - why not just pay Google their £23/month and be done with it?
There are a number of answers to this, I'll start with the one that has apparently hit other users.
Today I tried to upgrade my main one to the business starter and I couldn't. The billing has defaulted to the USA at some point in the past, and there is no way to change it - ever. I have no way of paying...
Some users are reportedly trying to upgrade, only to find that Google won't let them add a payment method - for whatever reason, Google's decided they're in the US, so validation fails on billing details. Ouch.
But, that's not why I don't want to move to Workspace.
For me, the real dissuader is the fact that these accounts are locked out of important/useful functionality: For whatever reason (cough, data harvesting) Google has had a Jekyll-Hyde going on with account types for years. The reason often given is "GSuite is for business" which ignores the years of Google pushing Apps for Domains as being for families and other small organisations.
- You can't use Google Family Link with a GSuite/Workspace account.
- You can't (without enabling/permitting quite a bit of additional tracking/harvesting) share your Nest thermostat with an AfD/GSuite/Workspace user via Google Home (and Google Home is replacing the Nest app).
The "official" solution to these seems to be to also maintain a free Gmail account (the terms of which allow much broader tracking/profiling, natch).
That stuff was annoying when AfD was free, but it's entirely unacceptable if I'm paying for the account. Full functionality or GTFO...
I'm not going to consider a paid option that doesn't meet requirements, and as it stands, Workspace accounts are a partially crippled solution (and it seems inevitable that there'll be future functionality that Gsuite users can't use too). If I've got to maintain a free Google account either way, then I may as well consider giving my money to someone else.
Assessing the Lock-In
Moving email and docs is relatively easy, the problem is that there's much, much more to a Google account than that.
Google hasn't (yet?) given any clarification on what happens to an account if it's not paid for. It notes that it'll be suspended, but is that the account (i.e. the sign-in entity) or just the underlying services (i.e. Gmail, Drive etc)?
The difference is important, because loss of the account is quite severe.
There is, undoubtedly, going to be more that I've not thought of yet - after using an account for over a decade there's always going to be stuff you forget is even related.
One of the first things I need to know is whether "Sign in with Google" been used by any user, to sign into anything that any user still cares about? If the Google account is lost/disabled, then they'll no longer be able to sign into the linked applications/sites.
This can be checked in the Domain admin interface (though you have to view each user individually)
If any are listed (damn!) you're then pretty much at the mercy of whether the connected application lets you switch out Google accounts. Some don't, but some can be worked around (Pokemon Go, for example, you can apparently link your Facebook account, unlink the old Google account, link a different Google account, then unlink Facebook).
Play Store purchases
Play store purchases are non-transferable, so if the Google account is lost/disabled, so are any purchases made - paid apps, books, movies, whatever - are all gone.
There isn't a way (that I can find) for a Domain Admin to check whether users have any paid purchases recorded against their Google Play accounts. But, to some extent, there's little point in being able to extract this information anyway: there's nothing you can do about it, the content will be lost if you lose your Google account.
Your choices are to either accept the loss of purchased items, or strip any copy protection from installed/downloaded versions (assuming it's legal to do where you are, obviously) and side-load them (but even then, you've lost access to future updates).
This overlaps a bit with Single-Sign-On but is still quite easily forgotten.
When setting up an Android phone/table, a Chromecast or a multitude of other devices (got an Android TV?) you tend to have to sign into it with a Google account.
The connected applications view will tell you what sort of devices were signed into (it'll report
Android device and
Chromecast) but won't tell you some fairly crucial details: how many and which devices.
On the basis that the Lock-in has to be broken at some point (or can, perhaps, be mitigated), I figured I'd take a quick look at what the market has to offer.
I've been a Linux user since my teens, so it's fair to say I'm not a massive fan of Microsoft's products. But, I have recently had good experiences with Microsoft Family Safety and Office is a mature product (constant UI rejigging not withstanding) so I thought that maybe we might be able to find a new home in O365.
Microsoft's Office365 Family pack comes in well on the feature/price front
- £79.99/year, gives 6 users, 1TB storage each
Assuming you've more than 1 user, it works out much cheaper (for us, nearly £200 a year cheaper!) than Google's Workspace offerings, and seems almost ideal.
Almost being the operative word there.
Office365 Family supports custom/vanity domains but requires that you use GoDaddy as a registrar. That's a deal breaker for me, I'm not going to jump from one form of lock-in to also having my domain locked into a single registrar (and one of the worst ones on the planet), particular as I'm perfectly happy with my current registrar.
It looks like this requirement isn't for any technical reason, other than that Microsoft wanted to abstract the domain configuration away from users. Whilst it looks like it's possible to reverse enginer and manually configure things, there's a risk that something will change on Microsoft's end leaving you non-functional.
I've also seen suggestions that the functionality only allows you to receive mail on the vanity domain - any outgoing mail still gets sent from the Outlook domain. I've no idea if this is true, but if it is, they've really misunderstood the point in a vanity domain - might as well use an auto-forwarder at that point.
The business O365 packages don't appear to require GoDaddy, but assuming Office access is important, at £9.40/user/month the cost is double that of Google (to be fair, you do get more storage, but that's not a big concern for us).
Zoho have a range of options
- Mail only: £0.80/user/month with 5GB storage per user
- Mail only with extras: £3.20/user/month with 5GB storage per user
- Mail + Workdrive storage + productivity: £2.40/user/month with 30GB mail storage and 10GB drive storage
So, they come in at half of Google's standard price (managing, even, to match Google's promotional pricing).
They have a free trial, so I had a quick play about with it, and it looks like a strong contender. They also have documentation on migrating from Workspace to Zoho.
Although it doesn't affect the product itself, the company's ethos also give me warm fuzzies in a way that Google doesn't. The company is working to try and reverse the flow of talent from rural communities into cities in order to try and improve local economies and reduce poverty in rural areas.
I currently use Mythic's mail hosting for another of my domains, and the service is excellent.
- Mail Only: £2.00/month for 2GB storage
There are no productivity tools, but there's also arguably no reason (other than convenience) that your productivity suite needs to be tied directly to your email.
But, I still don't think it's necessarily a good fit for us in this case. I've a lot of mail in my main account, and whilst this could be archived out somewhere, I'm used to being able to search within my inbox.
Additionally, I find that my chosen mail client (K-9) sometimes stops checking mail. That's not a massive drama for me, but I can see other users of my domain complaining about it.
I could self-host:
- I've run my own mail servers in the past and things like iRedMail make it all the easier
- the productivity suite could be exposed with LibreOffice Online
But I just don't want the maintenance overhead of that running all that nowadays, which is why I moved to a more managed solution in the first place.
The world is also very different now, if you self-host, there's a good chance you'll not be able to send mail to users on larger providers as a result of them blocking broad blocks for bad behaviour, as Linode users recently found out.
Having a productivity suite local to the LAN would be a boon, so I've not entirely ruled that out, but I think that mobile use-cases would probably drive the final nail into those plans.
Apple apparently offer vanity domains at £0.79/month with 50GB storage.
- We're not Apple users, so don't have the convenience of "oh neat, I already have an iCloud account anyway"
- It sounds like users can have 3 mailbox aliases per domain, so fails the alias/wildcard check
If we were Apple users though, I suspect there's a good chance that's where our email would be headed.
I've still got some hard problems to solve around what'll happen to our Google Accounts, and how to save any access or purchase that's linked to those accounts.
Whilst Google might talk about users being able to use the "TakeOut" functionality to retrieve their data, they're being disingenious: Without Play Store purchases (and the means to use them), the data exports provided are incomplete.
Even if they were complete, there's still the question of how to go about porting access for anything that's been linked to the Google account. That's where the real concerns lies for most users, this comment being a prime example
"If anyone from Google is reading, I just want to flick a switch and turn my firstname.lastname@example.org account to a standard gmail one with the same login and keep everything except the Workplace features." Exactly this. I'd gladly pay Google $25/year for this (provided they let us keep the catch-all processing).
For myself, I'm not averse to paying for functionality, but I absolutely will not pay for an account that's been crippled out of using functionality that I want/need. That means that Family Link, Google Home etc need to be permitted to work with Workspace accounts.
Given their size, it'd take them a while to notice, but it's possible that Google's cack-handedness here will ultimately introduce some rot. Not only have they royally pissed off a proportion of users who've grown into decision makers, but they've also given them cause to look at alternatives. Will they perhaps find that the competition start gaining more of a foothold over time?
I can't currently think of an argument for Workspace over Zoho, other than that we're already partially locked in so it's the path of least resistance. Without that lock-in, could I actually make the argument that Google's offering is the right way to go? After all
- Office 365 has more storage for only slightly more money a month
- Zoho costs less, has more storage, and is a more ethical company
- iCloud costs less, and has more storage (but does lack productivity tools)
- Dedicated mail hosters cost significantly less (but do lack productivity tools)
- None of the above have a reputation for incessantly killing products
When the only argument for Google is "they've already got my stuff, and it's hard to move", the argument for entering that ecosystem is painfully weak, especially as you never know whether Google's likely to kill something you rely on.
I still need to think about the specifics of migrating, but at the moment it looks a lot like we're going to be migrating to Zoho.
There's a lot of competition in the market nowadays, and although there's likely going to be some pain around account access, it looks like now is the time to break the Google addiction a little bit further.
Last night, I finally received a notification from Google
Somehow it's taken them a full week to get far enough through the userbase to reach me. In fact, it's taken them so long, that I've completed my migration away from the Workspace core services.
Are Google that inefficient, is the AfD user-base that big, or has something else delayed it? There are signs that Google has probably received more pushback than it expected:
So, it might be that we see some level of a walk-back by Google in the coming months.