Google Reader – Go, Going, Gone

In my previous post, I bid farewell to an old friend. This week, I sat down and ponder on the imminent death of another dear friend.

We could see it coming. We know the day will come when Reader will disappear from our life. Still, the subtle and casual way of announcing the closure of Reader sent rumbles across the globe. The tremor could be felt everywhere, not just within the tech community. Everyone, anyone that cares about news exchange should be concerned. Before this, they didn’t have to worry about the backend issues. Like the blog? Click it, done. Fire up a RSS reader of their choice and all the content will be there, neatly, waiting for consumption.

In business sense, it’s a logical move. This also signals a narrowing of focus. Google is looking into the future. RSS is the past, a past that is not relevant in its relentless pursuit for major break through in innovative usage through technology. When you have exciting and ground breaking projects such as wearing a glass capable of doing so much, and laying the lines underneath the surface for something major, what is an old dinosaur doing in their backyard?

I’m not upset at the news of its death. I’m grateful for all the things Google has done, and like every good thing, it must come to an end. Not the fairy tale ending, but as a company, Reader has never been pulling in the figures needed to be sustainable. Truth be told, it has never been the case. It has never been the focus of the company to monetize the business they didn’t intend to launch in the first place. Rather than putting it on support system, it makes better sense to put it to sleep. This shutdown at the very least eliminates the state of monopoly. It gives developers new hopes to innovate the stagnant RSS scene, and provides motivation to roll out the new de facto API for a new era. I know there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Rewind back the years, go back in time where the RSS space is vibrant, innovative and full of fresh ideas and developers. With the dominant player controlling the vast majority of the market share out of the way, it paves the way for others.

Not earning, why not charge users?

Because as users (not customers), we were never given a chance to pay. I believe there will be a substantial amount of takers who are more than willing to fork out money for something they use on a daily basis. But ways to monetize the services didn’t come off, because right from the start, it’s already dying a slow death. Between killing off the service and asking users (not customers) to pay for it, choosing the former fits the company culture more.

So with a swift swipe of its button, a casual announcement followed by an imminent shutdown. A lot have been written around the Internet about this issue. Many mourn the death, some are concern without Google reader, how is RSS going to shape our future. Some are more upbeat, suggesting that the closure of G Reader is the best thing for the RSS space that has been stagnant for some time already. Some have came up with alternatives to Reader, and there are already some interesting ones that are gaining their well deserved recognition.

Here are the voices around the globe:

Despite the thousands of articles and blog posts lamenting the loss, few wondered why so many people think RSS is worth saving.

Brent Simmons (creator of NetNewsWire): 

Even if you don’t use an RSS reader, you still use RSS. One way or another, directly or indirectly, you use RSS. Without RSS all we’d have is pictures of cats and breakfast…RSS is plumbing. It’s used all over the place but you don’t notice it. Which is cool.

The Verge: 

RSS is built so deeply into the bones of so many websites and web services that we take it for granted. Your Tumblrs and your YouTube users and your Flickr friends and your favourite websites and blogs all usually offer RSS, automatically, with very little effort from their developers.

Words from Chris Wetherell, early creator of Google Reader:

When they replaced sharing with +1 on Google Reader, it was clear that this day was going to come. We had a sign that said, ‘days since cancellation‘ and it was there from the very beginning.

Lean Crew:

What’s missing from the articles I’ve seen, though, is an explanation of how Google Reader got to be the 800 pound gorilla of RSS. It’s almost as if it were a fait accompli, that Google is a force of nature that inevitably takes over any field it gets into. The way I see it, though, is that it was the iPhone that put Google Reader in the driver’s seat.
…For a user, once your phone’s RSS reader is using Google Reader, you’re hooked. You have to use it on the desktop—either directly in the browser or indirectly through an application—to maintain synchronisation. Thus, the march of Reader to world RSS domination.

Matt Alexander: 

For months, we’ve watched ambivalently as Google’s shed excess products, outmoded designs, and refocused itself on the future. As with any change, many felt resentful toward Google for axing some beloved services. Others, on the other hand — myself included — felt the decisions represented a welcome narrowing of focus within the notoriously nebulous company.

John Paul Titlow:

But it’s not just for tech enthusiasts, either. This is the first time a service has shut down and I’ve received tweets, texts and emails from friends freaking out, wondering what they’re going to do. These are not Hacker News-reading uber-geeks or even people who follow technology news much at all. They’re journalists, bloggers, scientists, artists and people who prefer to follow local news and blogs via feeds. It’s a nerdy set, yes, but most of this particular sample of people don’t care all that much about tech. Yet I’ve never seen them so upset.

The Guardian’s analogy between bees and the ecosystem:

Around the world, the bees are dying due, it’s thought, to modern insecticides, The irony is that bees are essential to agriculture and the wider ecosystem; the outcome of their decline will be far more onerous than the insect damage the treatment was supposed to prevent. Google is now in the unhappy position of emulating the pesticide-wielding farmers.

Aldo Cortesi: 

The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidised product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player.

The RSS scene back then was vibrant and competitive, then in came the big boy that muscles practically everybody out of the market. It’s destructive, it’s unfair, but we care little about it at that time. It was The Reader of choice. We became complacent and slowly, it became the backbone that other RSS readers rely on.

As we look upon with grim faces at the dawn of an era, it also gives rise to the opportunity for new services to take over the regime.

To Marco Arment, this is fantastic news:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade.

And alternatives are popping up.

David Smith on Feed Wrangler:

You see, I’ve been working on an alternative to Google Reader over the past few months. I had been working away on this hoping to launch around WWDC this June. Google’s move has bumped these plans up considerably.
Feed Wrangler isn’t a simple clone of Google Reader. Instead it is an alternative take on aggregating RSS that I think makes it much easier to manage. Feed Wrangler will be a paid, subscription based service.

When the dominant player having almost the full share of the pie is not around, it opens the floodgate for aspiring developers to bring in fresh concepts and features. It’s not surprise to see it being a paid service, looking at how other services are not sustainable when it’s a free product. It reminds me of the business and philosophy of Pinboard, and what the developer said by supporting the products and services by paying for them.

For people who are suggesting that there is already a subsitute for Reader in Twitter, think again.

Clay Allsopp: 

Today, news and blog content is relatively open and parseable because of RSS and Google Reader’s leverage, but all the recent social information about ourselves is locked behind protocols unique to each website and app.

And how at how Facebook and Twitter sell our information to display targeted advertisements. And how Instagram enraged so many users with the policy change, before reverting its stand.

The conventional wisdom, which is conventional but not wisdom, says that RSS is obsolete because now we have Twitter and other social things.

In fact, Twitter is not a big RSS reader. RSS is something you control, and Twitter is something other people control. (Even if you dedicate a Twitter account exclusively to the same sources of content you had in Google Reader, the viewing options, functionality and everything about Twitter is controlled by Twitter.) That both give you streams of content is a superficial similarity. Fundamentally, they are opposites.

What Google Reader and RSS fans fear is not the loss of a good service and a great format. They fear the loss of control. They fear a future in which decisions about what they see, watch, read and listen to are determined by secret algorithms and the whims of the social media masses.

It’s not an unreasonable fear: The taking away of control from the user is the way the whole industry is going.

Twitter has, and never will be the replacement of RSS. Reader organises and keeps the information in view, Twitter ushers in the data in a hurried manner eyeing for your attention.

The question is, can we trust Google?

Well, not really. The takeaway we have for this episode is nothing last forever, and we should never solely rely on one entity for things we treasure and love. Chrome is an amazing browser, I’m pleased with what it brings to me. But that’s no guarantee that it will be around for the next 10 years. There’s no promise that comes the next spring cleaning session, Chrome wouldn’t be killed off. As Google looks to streamline its focus and services, and with its projection set into the future, it is uncertain which products and services could be the next one on the chopping board.

Bottom line: We should always have a contingency plan for things we value.

So the low profile, hardworking services that is Google Reader is making way for the future – the future of driver-less vehicles, Google glasses and the likes. It will a very exciting time ahead, but we must also bear in mind the dark timeline this closure has in Google.

Regardless of what comes out of this, it is clear that Google Reader has left a dent in the RSS sphere. It’s an interesting footnote in the history of tech space where we can reflect back and ponder, wondering if this move is indeed the best way forward for the general public. The void is a big one, it will be a huge shoe to fill, but it also bring forth excitement and anticipation which wouldn’t have happened if Reader is still lingering around.

The sites we love are not disappearing, it’s just the services that keeps what we read in sync are going away. If things didn’t work out for the alternatives (which I doubt so), I will just select the handful of sites I really like and visit them directly.