Google just announced that they’re killing off Google Reader, which has been around since 2005 and has a small (by Google standards) but loyal following. It’s an interesting/cautionary tale for those of you who are interested.
Back when the Clenis still ruled Washington and we hadn’t been forced to invade Iraq by the Muslim Hitlers, RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, was invented. The idea was that every website could have a “feed” of its latest updates that could be used by different tools for those who were interested in when the website was updated. During the early 2000s, RSS began to be built in to blogs and news sites, and a number of different reader software packages were developed. Generally, these ran on your desktop machine and polled all the sites to which you “subscribed” to get an updated feed. By the mid-2000s, there were a number of different free and paid software packages and websites that would do this polling.
Then along came Google Reader. At first it was just a me-too browser-based RSS reader like any other. But after the launch of Android, Google also created a Reader client that would work on your smartphone and sync with your browser-based Google Reader, and then it really took off. Reader’s sync allowed you to lie in bed and read your feeds on your phone, or read them on the train to work, and as soon as you fired up the web-based Reader interface, all the feeds that you had read earlier would be shown as already read. This seems like a small thing, but I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day in Google Reader on various devices, and having them all sync up is a huge convenience.
Once that sync happened, software makers reverse-engineered the Google protocol for syncing, and created a bunch of third-party apps that used Google to sync their RSS feeds. This was never officially endorsed by Google–in other words, Google never issued an official Reader API–but it was tolerated, and it was rock-solid, because it was built on Google’s cloud. Over time, all the other Reader-like services stopped being used, and Reader became the one way that all RSS readers synchronized.
At the same time, Google never really embraced Reader the way it has Gmail or Google+. It was updated infrequently to make it work with Google+ or to look more like other Google apps, and every time something was changed the small userbase made a stink. Long-time Reader users saw the writing on the wall–Google either updates a product regularly or they shut it down–but it’s hard to compete with free, so few other services rose up to take on Reader.
Which leads us to today, and the panic that accompanied Google’s announcement of Reader’s July 1 end date (here’s an 800+ comment thread at the Verge for a taste). Reader is one of those products that isn’t used casually. I’m a good example of the average Reader user: almost everything that I read on the Internet in a given day originates from a feed I read in Reader. People are wondering why a company that throws billions into free services like Gmail and Google+ couldn’t spend a few bucks on this particular free service.
I guess I should be pissed, too, but I’m not, for a couple of reasons. First, Google has an initiative called “Takeout” that lets you export your data from Google services, and the Takeout for Reader will let me take far more data than I want. As long as Google gives enough notice when it sunsets a service, and gives me the ability to get my data back, then I’m not going to bitch when they shut off a free ride. Second, all the little services and software packages that were dying on the vine are now going to make a grab for the (for them) huge Reader market (here’s one set of alternatives). There are also some really well designed Reader clients on mobile platforms (Press on Android is one example), and they are all looking for a sync service, too.
So I’ll be looking for a Reader replacement in the next couple of months, and I’ll probably spend a few bucks on it. Monopoly control by a benevolent dictator was never good for the RSS market, and in a year or so I expect that the RSS reader I’m using will be better in many ways than what Reader is today, because it will be maintained by a few people who are passionate about creating the best RSS reader around, rather than a big company that stopped giving a shit about RSS long ago.