Google Reader Shuts Down

First, let’s look at the bright side. Google’s widely covered announcement to shut down Google Reader by the end of June will raise awareness of two important facts that the Internet-using public has been happy to ignore. The first is that “free” is a bad business model, as noted for example in David Crotty’s Perils of Free Services:

The fate of Mendeley and Connotea should serve as reminders of the dangers of relying on free services. The users’ needs and desires come secondary to the real customers — in Google’s case, the advertisers; in Facebook’s case, those purchasing data and access to users. When a company has no business model, then the terms of service they provide can turn on a dime when one comes along.

It’s far better to pay for a service that’s critically important to you than to rely on one where you are not the sole focus of the company providing that service. If you’re the paying customer, then the company’s health is based on keeping you happy. Mendeley and Connotea are showing us that a free service can at any point be shut down or suffer drastic changes with little regard for the user’s best interests.

And now we can add Google Reader to that list. Google does not charge for the service, and considers its revenue potential so poor that it had recently shut down AdSense for Feeds. The only remaining question is whether the equally free and un-monetized FeedBurner will follow – or rather, how soon. Anyone who is heavily dependent on free web services should join Michael Croucher and re-evaluate how safe and important that data is, in case any other services suddenly shut down.

The other important lesson is that Google, contrary to its carefully cultivated public image as every geek’s selfless friend, is indeed a profit-seeking corporation. To cite two lesser-known examples from recent days, Google has quietly evicted ad blockers from its Google Play store, and abandoned CalDAV in favor of its own proprietary Calender API – after first promoting CalDAV as an open alternative to Microsoft’s ActiveSync. Back on topic, Aldo Cortesi recalls the fierce competition between companies building RSS readers and related services before Google Reader arrived in 2005:

…it was a time of immense excitement, when RSS seemed to be the future, the news ecosystem was vibrant, and this thing called the blogosphere, fueled by peer subscription, was doubling in size every six months. It was into this magic garden that Google wandered, like a giant toddler leaving destruction in its wake. Reader was undeniably a good product, but its best quality was also its worst: it was free. Subsidized by Google’s immense search profits, it never had to earn its keep, and its competitors started to die. Over time, the “hyper competitive” RSS reader market turned into a monoculture. Today, on the eve of its shutdown, RSS more or less means “Google Reader” to a large fraction of readers, to the extent where even the best feed readers on IOS are just Google Reader clients.

Mike James draws the obvious parallel: whether deliberately or accidentally, Google executed the same embrace-and-exterminate strategy with Reader that Microsoft once tried with Internet Explorer.

To be clear: this is market manipulation of the sort that got Microsoft into trouble for giving away a browser with its OS. A big company with the resources to give away an application stifles the competition in the market. This is bad enough, but instead of taking a commercial way out, i.e. sell the product to a company that can make a profit out of it, or a benevolent way out, i.e. open source the code, Google simply pulls the plug.

The irony is that this move might backfire for Google, as it did for Microsoft. Reader’s user community might be small but it’s disproportionately vocal and influential, including not only amateur loudmouths like myself but also many professional journalists. These are the people who happily promulgated Google PR during the last decade, with little if any critical analysis. If they are now, for the first time, directly negatively impacted by a Google decision, the company might very quickly discover that saving Reader’s relatively minor maintenance costs was penny-wise and pound-foolish, as Greg Hendershott suspects.

Popularity

Google only offers a terse “usage has declined” as the reason for Reader’s shutdown. While I estimated myself that RSS reading is 1–2 orders of magnitude less popular than blogging (and search is of course much bigger again), that still leaves millions of RSS users. Alex Chitu shows 24 million Google Reader subscribers for CNN alone. Totals drop quickly from there, but popular blogs did see their Reader-ship multiply since 2007/8 – Google’s own from 100k to 353k, Joel Spolsky’s from 42k to 148k. Small fry compared to the big social networks, but by no means dying as some people claim.

More plausibly, then, Google’s motivation included driving people from poorly monetized Reader towards Search or Google+. (Buzzfeed’s hilarious chart shows that despite its alleged 100 million “active users,” Google+ currently only provides a tiny fraction of Reader’s visitor traffic.) For heavy RSS users like myself those are unacceptable alternatives, and so is the marginally better Twitter. Dieter Bohn and Brent Simmons list the format’s many unique advantages over modern social networks:

  • It’s open and (still) widely supported. You don’t have to obtain anyone’s permission to publish or read a feed.
  • It’s as anonymous as it gets. Nobody can track your reading habits, beyond the unavoidable traces at your ISP, and readers cannot spam authors.
  • Authors are in full control of the content, but once delivered readers are likewise in full control of their experience. There is no platform owner that can dictate how everyone should display or consume content, such as injecting advertising.
  • Stories wait for you, whenever you are ready. There’s no real-time feed that makes it hard to find where you left off yesterday, with the inevitable temptation to just ignore anything written before just now. This is especially important when authors and audience are separated by large time zone gaps.
  • A surprising perspective by Zachary Seward and Mike Masnick: Google Reader enabled Chinese and Iranians to access censored websites, as their governments don’t dare block Google entirely. But they won’t think twice about blocking smaller services.

Aside from the unique censorship situation, RSS is a good tool as Nicholas Carr says, but one that gets in the way of the new proprietary platforms – Google, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. I like good tools, and I don’t particularly like those platforms. Only time will tell if tool fans like us will dwindle to an irrelevant niche, or if the RSS ecosystem keeps enough popular support to remain viable in the long run.

Alternatives

There are plenty of other news readers, web applications as well as native ones, and most are better than Google Reader anyway. The big problem is that for most of them, Google Reader was the primary – or only – back-end for fetching feeds and synchronizing multiple devices. My favorite Windows reader, FeedDemon, can run with local storage but synchronizes only over Google Reader. Consequently, and also due to poor sales, Nick Bradbury announced the end of FeedDemon. He later promised a final free release, but it won’t have any cloud synchronization and it won’t receive any further updates. Open sourcing the product is impossible due to its commercial third-party components.

On iOS (and presumably Android) it’s worse: hardly anything works without the Google Reader back-end. My favorite iPad app, Reeder by Silvio Rizzi, cannot fetch feeds in any other way. The author has promised to fix this before Google Reader shuts down, but it’s not clear how. The additional services supported by Reeder for iPhone, Fever and Readability, don’t offer hosted feed synchronization as far as I’m aware.

At the present the situation looks dire, and I’m unable to make any recommendations. Various smaller services have been ecstatic over the big influx of new customers after Google’s announcement… and promptly experienced lengthy outages as they couldn’t handle the load. Reliability, security, and financial sustainability are mostly unknown quantities among these tiny shops, some of which were hastily launched to join the gold rush. Fellow WordPress.com users might import their OPML file into the standard WordPress Reader, but its interface isn’t really suitable for a large number of feeds. Until a clearer picture emerges, I suggest you use a desktop reader with local storage such as FeedDemon (until bit rot sets in) or perhaps the free multi-platform RSSOwl.

For an overview of available services and clients (of any flavor), I direct you to the extensive lists compiled by LifeHacker and Superfeedr. Some interesting options exist for those who are able to maintain their own Linux servers: Ryan Markel describes his self-hosted Fever setup, and Dave Winer shows how to install a “River of News” server in Amazon’s cloud. Another obvious idea would be to use private FTP/WebDAV or some general-purpose cloud like Dropbox for synchronization, without dedicated server software, but Brent Simmons explains why this isn’t a great solution.

  1. You’d want to store your entire history of articles. Full text for flagged articles should be available even when they have fallen out of their current XML feed, or their feed was deleted. (I would also add that re-fetching articles can be slow and unreliable.)
  2. Multiple reader applications on different devices might be running simultaneously, for hours or days. You’d expect all such applications to always have an up-to-date view of your shared subscriptions.

So you’d end up with very big files that must be synchronized on virtually every single access – impossibly expensive without an intelligent central server. Writing in late 2011, Simmons correctly notes that compared to Google Reader nobody would accept such an inferior service, nor spend any money on solving this problem. That situation has changed, though. Compared to either no synchronization or some dubious small-scale proprietary service, we should reconsider a private “dumb file” synchronization scheme that limits back storage and simply forbids concurrent use. We’ll see if someone comes up with a good implementation.

Meanwhile, I definitely intend to keep providing an Atom and/or RSS feed for this weblog as long as possible. To my knowledge, WordPress has no intention of dropping this feature, although I (and my readers) will have to change the feed URL back to WordPress once FeedBurner does eventually shut down. And if you’re frequently on Twitter, remember that I also tweet every new or updated post on my Twitter profile.

2013-03-16: People just noticed that Google has quietly killed its RSS browser extension for Chrome, disabling it retroactively even where it was already installed. This extension supported feed aggregators other than Google Reader, which further hints that Google deliberately tries to remove Atom/RSS syndication from its ecosystem.

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