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Google Reader is useful, reliable service that suffered from shameful neglect

A Google Reader page

A Google Reader page

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Updated: April 16, 2013 4:13PM



Nice try, Google. You thought that by releasing a whole bunch of little news items about the company while the whole world was focused on the Papal enclave, you could slip something past us. Well, the “Pope-a-dope” strategy didn’t work: we noticed, and how.

They’re eliminating Google Reader, starting on July 1. Not “eliminating support,” mind you; they’re pulling the plug on this popular newsreading and site aggregation service. No amount of begging and wheedling will bring it back.

Which is a shame, because I was really prepared to rend my garment over this one. Google Reader is/was an utterly essential part of my day. It summarizes and collates all of the newly posted items from hundreds of different blogs, news sites, and services into one handy reading window. I couldn’t maintain such a wide screen awareness of the world without Reader.

And as a centralized service, this “one handy reading window” articulates itself across all of my screens. I wake up, pull my MacBook into bed with me, and hit reader.google.com to get a wide bead on what’s happened during the 3 to 17 hours I’ve been asleep. I can move smoothly to my iPad and continue to read, via a third-party app, while I eat breakfast and then I leave the house and keep right on going with another third-party app on my Android phone at the garage while my car is getting its annual inspection. Each app checks with the Google Reader service to find out which articles have been posted since last I checked, and which ones I’ve read already.

All of this can happen because of some simple, open, and hugely popular standards. A syndication feed (usually shorthanded as “RSS,” but that’s a specific standard) is just a simple database file on the site’s server. Google Reader — or any other feedreader app on your desktop or mobile device — checks that file and uses it to present the site’s content to me in a format that I find easier to manage.

Sounds useful, doesn’t it? I read a couple of dozen webcomics every morning, thanks to RSS feeds. Without the aid of a feed reader, I’d remember to check three or four of them at most.

So why is Google pulling the plug? “Declining usage,” they say. Which seems odd because:

(a) The fact that Google did so little to improve the product made this a suicide-by-stagnation sort of death.

And (b) Gosh, Google, if usage was so low and you were apparently spending so little time improving it, Google Reader couldn’t have amounted to a significant drain on your resources, could it? Why not keep the lights on, just for the sake of the people who rely on Reader every day? To say nothing of the third-party developers who’ve crafted terrific apps and services that enhance the Reader experience?

The only answer that comes to mind is that Reader doesn’t include any opportunities for advertising, which is Google’s main business. Worse, Reader encourages users of the Web to view site content in this (usually) ad-free environment, instead of visiting the originating webpages. The only remaining upside of Google Reader for the company would have been as a mechanism for learning about a user’s reading habits, preferences, and community connections. But they’re canceling Reader, so it couldn’t have been terribly valuable, and Google+ already fulfills the function of Harvester Of Personalized Social Graph Data.

The argument against RSS is that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks have stepped in to fill its original role. True, you can Follow the Sun-Times and get links to most of its top stories via your Twitter feed. Follow me directly at @ihnatko and you’ll get my Sun-Times stuff plus my articles for other sites, plus my podcast episodes, plus occasional photos and an exhausting run of Pope jokes if you hit me on the wrong day. Terrific multiplatform apps like Flipboard and Pulse repurpose the links and postings from social feeds into beautiful electronic magazines, on the fly.

It’s a frustrating argument because it’s so...correct. “Like” and “Follow” buttons are dirt-simple for ordinary Humans to use. RSS isn’t anywhere on the “complicated” spectrum, but it’s still harder. Look how many words I had to chop down and burn to explain it. And although subscribing to a site’s RSS feed is as simple as clicking a single button in your browser, the button needs to be installed by the user. “Install,” you’ll recall, is a two-syllable word that sends many Humans screaming and running by the intonation of the second consonant.

I also note with regret that Nick Bradbury, creator of the fab Windows desktop RSS reader FeedDemon, is terminating that project. He cites the end of Google Reader as the final nail in a commercial app that had already transitioned from “revenue generator” to “labor of love.” If RSS were setting the world on fire and this world made any sense, the creator FeedDemon would be wealthy enough to hire a fulltime veterinarian to take care of his private herd of giraffes.

My counterargument is that the “social network as web content aggregator” approach throws everything into a single scrum. A scrupulously-sourced story about a vital issue written by a Pulitzer-winning journalist at great peril to his or her own life appears right next to your Auntie Tenon’s massively-reforwarded Facebook post about the White House’s secret plan to send armed military into every household to confiscate all light bulbs rated at 20 watts or higher. Is this truly an efficient way to read your news? How hard is it for me to assemble my virtual “comics section” of the paper?

Social networks are easy to use when they’re just delivering something akin to a newsmagazine. Using Twitter and Facebook as a source of useful aggregated information requires curation-by-hand. It isn’t difficult, but it isn’t much easier than managing RSS feeds.

Many web developers have seen the writing on the wall for months, and have been developing their own alternatives to the Reader service. The makers of feedly.com promise to have a feature-complete alternative ready to go soon, and that switching all of your Google Reader subscriptions and favorited articles will be nearly automatic. They’re going to have to massively beef up their servers before they can deliver on that promise; sudden interest in Feedly has rendered the site inaccessible. Digg -- Hey, it turns out they’re still a thing. Good for them! --has announced that they’re moving up the timetable on an existing Google Reader-esque service. They, too, promise a painless transition.

This sort of handover was probably Google’s plan all along. Okay, fine, Google Reader has been deemed too weird for Google to support, particularly given the company’s desire to be seen as a developer with a lean and mean portfolio of products and services. But it’s too good to die. Three months’ notice is enough time for other companies to at least lock in a roadmap for a new product. I hope Google decides to be Real Good Sports and open-sources the whole project, for the benefit of every developer who wants to spackle the hole that Google Reader leaves behind.

Whatever the next Google Reader is, it’ll probably need to be a paid subscription service. “Free” is never free, even when it’s just electrons on a web server. Giving away a webapp results in an underfunded project that could disappear at any moment, or its else makers find sources of revenue that its users might not approve of. We get upset when we see a “promoted Tweet” land in our Twitter feeds, when a “free” racing game charges us in-app money to fix our fake cars, and when we learn that Google is sniffing through the email we receive via Gmail so it can target ads to us more effectively, we raise a snit. “Free, and on the terms we dictate to the software developer” is as highly desirable as it is unlikely.

Yes: I’m upset that Google is pulling the plug on Reader and that I’ll need to replace a critical part of my information flow. I’m more upset with myself, however. It’s yet another lesson that you rely on webapps at your own peril. FeedDemon will no longer be supported or updated, but (unlike Google, apparently) the lovely Nick Bradbury has enough resources to actually allow people to still download it from http://feeddemon.com/ and keep using it. Ditto for NetNewsWire (http://netnewswireapp.com/), my favorite standalone reader for the Mac.

Stop and add up how much of your life is affected by a corporate decision to terminate a server-based product. Are you using a free mail service? Do you use a webapp for word processing and spreadsheeting? Remote backup and document syncing? Does your company own its own webserver, or is the monthly ad revenue check that keeps your mortgage paid stem from a blogging service that the service’s CEO referred to as “a hobby” when asked about it during the last stockholder meeting?

Hmm. I’m starting to sound a lot like those men who live in the midwest with magnificent beards, enormous stockpiles of weapons and survival rations, and a homemade flag that they intend to raise over their compounds at the first sight of black helicopters.

Independence is a good thing to keep in mind. Enjoy the free rug that Google, or Apple, or Microsoft, or Dropbox has given you but all the same, consider what you might do if and when it’s pulled out from under you.



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