13 min read

Free services I started buying in 2023

Goodbye freemium. Four key parts of my online life I decided to buy (without regrets)
Free services I started buying in 2023

Wow, being online has gotten rough, isn't it?

And that's not a very original observation: far from the idealistic "Here is the Geocities webpage of my cat" spirit of the 90s and the "Let's sink a million bucks into this and let's see what sticks" spirit of the 2000s, the 2020s feel positively hostile.

Every step you take, every move you make, they are watching you (duh) but they are also constantly, aggressively nagging for cash.
That is especially evident with "Freemium" services. From writing to a friend, to watching a video, to running outside, it feels like you cannot do anything without web services trying to sell you something (or at least show you some ads).

And like we'll see below, the grind doesn't end if you accept whatever premium package they offer, because there will always be some little extra they put just out of reach, or they will keep trying to reinvent the wheel in order to chase growth. Frankly, it's exhausting.

Since last year, I decided to just buy the services I rely on. Because next to the big freemium players, there's a growing sector of look-alikes that clearly market themselves as "You know that free thing you use? What if it didn't suck?".

This is my experience so far, and it has been mostly positive, bringing back joy and excitemet in my digital life, together with a big sense of calm.

(If you're wondering where I'm going with these posts/threads: no, I don't think I'm suddely an authority in all this. But the tutorial format is a solid rhetorical device for summarizing and detailingl what I learned. In other words, it's part post-mortem and past reference, while hopefully being helpful guidance for someone out there πŸ˜„)

βœ‰ Email - Gmail to Fastmail

Email that just works. Perfect replacement, very satisfied.

For most people, there isn't a stigma attached to @gmail.com accounts.
Culturally, we've come to the point where a TV show will tell you to write into one and nobody bats an eyelid.

That's not an option for freelance translators.

If for any reason your name has even been remotely associated with translation, your mailbox will be awash with translator resumes.
You will get even three or four per day, they will all originate from gmail or hotmail addresses, and they will all invariably be translation scams.

So our natural choice was to upgrade our Gmail account. All the respectability of a private domain name, all the convenience of the mail site we knew.
Or so we thought, because the business side of big G felt hostile from the very beginning. Want to share the same mailbox among multiple users? Well, you can't: if you want the team to follow and reply to the same messages, you need to set up a mailing list and -surprise!- buy a separate account for each member.

Year after year they kept adding more and more collaboration features we never asked for (Slides! Sites! Meets!) bumping up the price more and more. We called it quits when they asked 500 USD for the privilege.

So we asked for options on Mastodon and hesitantly moved to Fastmail... but it has been smooth sailing since.

Fastmail - 100 USD/year - Satisfaction: ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐

On the minus side, our old mailbox was so bloated from a decade of delivery files that we couldn't move it all. I backed it up on my drive and, to be fair, I never felt the need to open it since.

On the plus side, it's very easy to make disposable "mask" email to give out in public, knowing that you can shut them down in seconds if they get spammed. And no more nagging for services we don't need.

πŸ“¦ Online storage - Dropbox to pCloud

So far so good?

Dropbox is a telling story of how the goals of an Internet startup and those of its users can diverge to the point where there's no solution but to part ways.

Dropbox was that magical service that makes online sharing transparent: you installed the app, logged-in and everything that was saved inside its special folder got shared with everyone you invited to it, instantly and securely.

That was perfect for a loosely associated, worldwide bunch of barely technical people like us. A new translator jumps in? "I'll send you the invite to our Dropbox folder, you'll find all the project files in it". It just worked.

We liked it so much, we actually featured it in our first public presentation. In 2011 we were invited to speak at Localization World Barcelona, explaining this brave new world of a translation team that never meets in person (hey, it was 2011) and Dropbox is featured right there, straight in the middle of slide 13.

We actually got a bit of flak, since the middle-manager types attending the event immediately latched on to it, asking how secure this arrangement really is.

And we bit our lip not to say that any solution was more secure than the standard agency arrangement at the time: plain emails protected by a sternly worded footer ("Confidential information! Delete immediately if you receive by mistake").

Instead, we shared the pure facts: military grade 256-bit AES encryption, from Dropbox straight to us. It just worked.

Ten years later, Dropbox's CEO started to find himself -as he says- limited by that canvas.

But he also doesn't want to just keep being a hard drive in the cloud. He's been trying to get past that for a while, actually. "One element of the Dropbox experience people love is that it just works," he said. Users can set it, forget it and move on with their lives. But "there's only so much kind of painting on that canvas," Houston said β€” only so much he can do inside a Mac user's Finder app. So the company's spent the last couple of years working on a much richer desktop app, in which users can comment, organize, take notes on and generally do work with their files in a much broader way. The question for Dropbox, then, was how far to take the idea going forward. Where did it want to get involved, and where did it want to let other apps do their thing?

What that looks like today? Well, brace yourself because shiny new Dropbox can not only backup your files, but request and add signatures, capture video messages, review and approve videos faster and more!

Well, we have zero need for any of that but as long as it doesn't interfere with our...

Meet Dropbox Dash - Find what you need faster with Dash, your AI-powered universal search tool. Dash isn't just for Dropboxβ€”it works wherever your content lives, so you can search your favorite apps, emails, and much more in seconds.

Yes, with Dropbox you can be sure that your confidential data will be shared securely only with you... and with its artificial intelligence partner OpenAI, for up to 30 days. But they will not use it to train models, pinky promise.

I actually debated this with the support at Dropbox (to the point they literally told me "If you're simply not interested in using Dropbox moving forward, that's okay". Sorry Demitri!)

But I'm not sure in what universe they can picture selling secure data storage, a service I use to keep confidential documents under NDA, while letting the most data-hungry company in the world free reign over it. Open AI, the company so unsure of its compliance, it actually covers legal costs when their clients get sued for copyright infringement.

So I just got pCloud, which is pretty much old Dropbox, but without the nonsense.
I've also been recommended NextCloud, an open-source/self-hosted alternative, but this is one case where pragmatism wins over ideology for me. If I can pay professionals to keep my data safe, I'd rather do that than getting my free-as-in-freedom on a server I'm sure I'll botch the security of πŸ˜…

pCloud - 100 USD/year - Satisfaction: ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐

On the minus side, it took a bit to move our mountain of old data. There's an automatic Dropbox-to-pCloud feature that backs it all up for you, but it hung part-way once (although support stepped in immediately to fix it).
The public folder features are less effective than they could. I guess they need to lock it down so that it doesn't get abused, but I tried to use it twice for sharing photos after a run (Γ  la Google Photos) and people just found it too cumbersome.

On the plus side, it just works! Conceptually, it is a bit different. Dropbox is one special folder on your PC which gets mirrored online and to other systems behind the scenes.
pCloud is more like a traditional network drive. No magic folders: everything clearly sits on a server and you just parse it remotely, link to it or mirror it.
It takes some using to, but in the end it's a much more transparent and flexible solution.

πŸ“Ό Video - YouTube to Nebula

Not a complete replacement for YouTube, but a comfortable alternative for about 60% of what I watched. Just see if the selection suits you.

Yes, I watch a lot of online videos.

Hey, you all went insane during the lockdown, but I've been working all alone in my office since 2008. At least allow me to feel a bit bored sometimes πŸ˜…

I always gravitated towards the long-form essay video. Rare Earth, Todd in the Shadows, Lindsay Ellis... The kind of slow-burn, low-intensity intellectual grind that keeps you mildly entertained while doing invoices or lulls you into sleep after lunch.

...Except now YouTube interrupts them every ten minutes, and with a double ad, which totally ruins the pace (not to mention my naps)!

Yes, I could get YouTube premium for 140 USD, but I would still need to deal with sponsored segments and the slippery slope of the algorithm, starting from quality content and feeding you increasingly poor copies of the original, until you suddenly ask yourself "Why am I watching this garbage?".

Nebula is just 30 USD and has a better selection.

Nebula - 30 USD/year - Satisfaction: ⭐ ⭐⭐

On the minus side, there's a ton of stuff missing. I'd love to see Matt McMuscles or Baumgartner Restoration on the platform, but it just doesn't seem to meet their interest. So I still watch the odd video on YouTube, using FreeTube, Revanced or Firefox with Ublock if I can.

On the plus side, the average quality is so high, I just try anything they have available. Instead of my personal "follows" page, I browse the last published videos on the platform knowing that it will be mostly fine.

A couple months on I have discovered new authors I actually like and look forward to seeing again. When is the last time we could do that on YouTube? πŸ˜…

🌍 Social - Twitter to Mastodon

More social network than social media, but that's what I needed

That needs not one but two premises. I told you I like verbose content, please indulge me πŸ˜„

The first is ideology.

For many, Mastodon and similar "alternative services" are a clear ideological choice, meant to free ourselves from the shackles of online conglomerates.

That is definitely true, but the core point for me is that these services have become so mature to be fundamentally commoditized.
I can now buy "a Twitter" or "a Gmail" in the same way I can buy "a Tupperware". It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, and since I need a duck, I'm glad to take it no matter how you call it.
The fact that some of these alternatives originate from scrappy independent companies, or even the online community itself, is a nice bonus but not my core motivation.

The second is the gap between social network and social media.

Calling Facebook or Twitter a "micro-blogging platform" feels increasingly off, but that's what they were: a space to jot down your thoughts and experiences in a quick, instinctive way, share them with people, get feedback and read theirs in return. It enriched you and it got you closer with friends, old and new. It was a "social network".

That is no longer the case. Not only fewer and fewer people are actively writing, those that remain compete in a global shouting match. They don't really talk like people anymore, they broadcast content like brands. It's a "social media".

(And the less said about Facebook and Twitter's "recommended for you" posts, the better πŸ˜„)

I don't want any of that. Like Wired brilliantly put it, I just want to be a boring person, happily fixing my bicycle.

How will these smaller groups of happier people be monetized? This is a tough question for the billionaires. Happy people, the kind who eat sandwiches together, are boring. They don’t buy much. Their smartphones are six versions behind and have badly cracked screens. They fix bicycles, then they talk about fixing bicycles, then they show their friend, who just came over for no reason, how they fixed their bicycle, and their friend says, β€œWow, good job,” and they make tea. That doesn’t seem like enough to build a town square on.

So I've split functions, on one hand I have my social network space on Mastodon, through a server I rent called localization.cafe, on the other I have my accounts on LinkedIN and Twitter.

So to take this article as an example, I've posted the draft on Localization Cafe, sharing my doubts and collecting feedback. That was me as a person, warts and all. When it will be done, I will announce it as a finished item on LinkedIN and Twitter.

I'll be happy to chat with whoever replies, but that's the end of it. And it's a planned strategy. Diagrams and all πŸ˜„

Like Richard Varda rightly said, "I don't know if I should be motivated by you or worried for you."

(LinkedIN is a particularly egregious case for me because I receive hundreds of requests from people I've never met. If they are colleagues, I will accept them... and promptly unfollow them. Please forgive me: I have to keep LinkedIN broadcast only or it just depresses me)

toot.io - 300 USD/year - Satisfaction: ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐

On the minus side, there's still no escaping corporate social media. I organize trailruns in Tokyo, and I need to use Facebook for that or no-one would join. Ditto for the LocJAM: few would know about it if I didn't post it around. Things might change, but for now Mastodon remains a nerdy niche.

And yes, hosting isn't cheap. Admittedly, I could move to another host and easily cut it down to 100 USD, but I like the reliability of our frankly over-sized server. And as a business expense, it compares very favorably to -say- attending some corporate conference.

On the plus side, rethinking my social media presence has given me a lot of peace. As a freelance translator, my online footprint is effectively my marketing. For most people, I would simply not exist without it. And it's nice to be back in control again.

(And the technical side is a walk in the park. It's easier to manage a Mastodon server than a Facebook account.)

πŸ” Security - Lastpass to Yubikey

Downright therapeutic peace of mind

For a very long time, I was very lazy about security.

Online accounts were a chore forced upon me, so I ridiculed it, using the same email and passwords for decades, across countless accounts. "Just a pile of useless garbage".

That's not the world we live in anymore. Ever since 90% of what we do moved inside a browser, our accounts are our most precious possession. In a way, our password database is today what a drive with all your software was 20 years ago: the seed for your whole digital life.

And hackers know it very well, since pretty much every service under the sun has had its accounts names and passwords leaked at some point. Head over to https://haveibeenpwned.com/ and see for yourself how many times they lost yours.

The most accessible solution is online password managers, like Lastpass or 1Password. You install a little add-on to your browser and all your passwords are encrypted and whisked over to a secure cloud storage somewhere, ready to be beamed to your different devices. Lovely arrangement, but I don't have to tell you they got leaked too. Over and over and over again.

The alternative cost me 120 USD. Here's my setup today.

I exported all my account credentials from Chrore/Firefox/Lastpass and moved them inside Keepass, a free/open source encrypted database.

So that's the first problem sorted.

Whenever I need to access a service, chances are it's set as "remember me" on my PC or my phone and I don't need to log in.

Sometime I need to log in again (new access, new device, especially secure service, previous access has died of old age, etc) so I start Keepass, type a long key passphrase (which I have memorized), unlock the database and the fields in the browser are filled automatically by a plugin (that part is honestly a bit clunky, so sometimes I just copy and paste instead).

With that set-up you can easily have a unique password for each service, so if they get leaked hackers can't simply take it and try it on another. It simply won't work.

But what about the service itself? Enter the YubiKeys.

I have two Yubikeys, one in the back of my PC and another in a drawer as a backup and for my phone.

First of all, you need the key to unlock Keepass. It simply can't decrypt the database without access to the hardware key.

And most importantantly, you can't access most services without it either.

For the most important services, like our email, the browser will need the physical harware key to be plugged in order to login.
For others, I have those one-time passcode system setups. You probably had to install Google Authenticator at some point: this is the same, except the codes are generated by the key itself.

So even if you have my user id and password, chances are you can't login anyway.

Yubikey - 120 USD - Satisfaction: ⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐

On the minus side, you are effectively moving passwords out of reach. Using Chrome, Fastpass or even nothing at all is obviously easier, since your data is all over the place πŸ˜„ This set up requires a couple minutes more to take everything "out of the safe" when you need to log in, so to say.

On the plus side, it has given me a lot of peace of mind, scrubbing many nightmare scenarios.

When a leak occurs (because it is a when, not an if) my digital life will not be the lowest of hanging fruits. When I lose my phone, all my passwords will not be one lockscreen away. And when my PC dies, I will not be locked out of my accounts.

But oddly enough, the best part has been pruning down my accounts. It's an odd liberating experience having them all listed in front of me and -say- decide that I don't want to continue Italki anymore, say goodbye to my teacher and shut the account, while opting to keep on Geocaching, adding a proper user name and password and downloading the app again for a fun Sunday with my daughter.

Fully satisfied, oddly therapeutic.