“We need to focus. Keep the self-driving cars, magic glasses, laptop, handheld OS, and Brazilian social network. Ditch the feed reader.”
— Pinboard (@Pinboard) March 14, 2013
Even though there’s probably no need for this amidst a sea of commentary surrounding Google Readers sudden demise, it would be weird not to write about it, considering that I’ve been a heavy user of the service for many years.
First, let me get one thing out of the way: As a Google Reader user, I’m seriously pissed off. Google is causing me a lot of trouble by breaking workflows that I’ve come to rely on heavily. Now let me be clear, I’m not coming at this with a sense of false entitlement: Google Reader was a free service and they have every right to shut it down, but as a user I have every right to hate their decision in return. There might be good business reasons for Google’s decision and it might ultimately turn out to be a good thing for a diversified, decentralized, healthy RSS ecosystem as many commentators have pointed out (Brent Simmons, Marco Arment, Dave Winer, Andre Torrez), but right now, I feel like Google is pulling the rug out from under my feet. I’m a heavy RSS user, subscribed to more than 350 feeds, and I read somewhere between 5000 and 10000 news items in a month. It’s my primary channel of news discovery and one of my primary channels for reading. No, Twitter doesn’t do it for me when it comes to keeping up with my favorite websites and writers (it’s just too easy to miss something good floating by in its ceaseless stream), my Facebook friends have terrible taste when it comes to sharing interesting, useful and intellectually stimulating articles and magazine-style readers (such as Flipboard or Pulse) lack the efficiency of plowing through a couple hundred new articles without having to worry that you might miss something. Tumblr’s dashboard is actually pretty good and convenient, but unfortunately it’s limited to Tumblr itself and there are people outside its silo that I’m also interested in following. (Which begs the question: why doesn’t Tumblr allow following outside sources in its dashboard, by way of, oh let’s say RSS? I would assume it could only increase user activity across Tumblr.)
Now when I say that I’ve been a Google Reader user for several years, a small clarification is in order: I’ve never really used the web application front-end of Google Reader. I maybe visited the website once or twice a year. But I’ve come to rely on Google Reader’s API as backend syncing infrastructure across the many devices where I use different native feed reader applications. By offering a solid and free product with a functional API, Google has managed to establish itself as the central hub in the RSS ecosystem. Pretty much any feed reader that was released in the past few years relies heavily on the Google Reader API for it to function. Netnewswire, my long time feed reader of choice on OS X desktop, switched from its own proprietary syncing service to Google Reader back in 2009. Reeder, probably the most popular feed reader on iOS, relies on Google Reader (just as many other iOS feed reader apps). And I’m gonna go out on a limb here and presume that most Android feed reader apps also rely on Google Reader, without having done a ton of research on the matter. Google Reader wasn’t so much a piece of software I used, but rather an invisible yet crucial piece of infrastructure, a piece of plumbing that made the web work for me.
And therein lies the crux of Google Reader’s unfortunate demise: There are plenty alternatives when all you want is an application that consumes and displays RSS feeds. Many frustrated users and tech websites have compiled lists of alternatives to Google Reader if all you’re trying to replace is the web application (e.g. Matt Haughey, Gizmodo, The Verge). But that’s not where the true value and importance of Google Reader resided: By shutting down the central hub that kept all other feed readers talking with each other and keeping them in sync, the Google Reader shutdown causes a giant rift in the RSS ecosystem which will be difficult to bridge. Brent Simmons already wrote about the implications of this shutdown back in 2011 and had me slightly worried about this ever since. He also shared his ideas for alternative syncing solutions (one, two, three). As the original and long-time developer of Netnewswire he knows what he’s talking about.
But aside from all the personal frustration and inconvenience this shutdown is causing me and hundreds of thousands (millions?) other Google Reader users, there’s something else truly baffling about this shutdown. Consider this: Google Reader is built on a giant archive of information chunks in a format much more machine readable than your average web page. Despite all this, Google, a company with a self-proclaimed “mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“, didn’t consider Google Reader a worthwhile part of this mission? Google Reader is also a web service that provides Google with a tremendous amount of data about what we like, whom we follow and what we read online. As a company which makes its money by shoving targeted advertising in our face based on what it knows about us, they still couldn’t figure out how to monetize this service?
Additionally, according to a recent report from BuzzFeed, Google Reader still drives far more traffic than Google’s favorite pet project of the moment, Google+. It truly seems as if Google’s management simply didn’t have a clue what they had on their hands with Google Reader – its creator Chris Wetherell recently corroborated as much in an interview with GigaOm. That Yonatan Zunger, chief architect of Google+, turned to his G+ followers with the question what made Reader so useful speaks to this as well.
As a parting thought: Ask yourself, do you have any idea how profitable services like GMail and Drive are? I don’t, and I trust them a whole lot less today than I did a week ago.