Google Reader, the Silent Geek Service

I’m still a bit taken aback by the fervent response to Google’s announcement that they’re finally going to shut down Google Reader later this year. It has been my rock-solid replacement for Netvibes for a few years now, and while I never got into the social and sharing aspects of the service, it remained a reliable backbone for plenty of RSS and news reader apps, most of which are now scrambling to find a similar backend service.

From a logistical standpoint, ending support for Reader makes total sense: the service made Google no money; consuming feeds offered minuscule (if any) amount of interesting data; its social efforts were eventually superseded by Google+ internally and Twitter/Facebook otherwise; the usage numbers have been declining; it was likely a hot potato for Google’s SREs to pass around as it lumbered on in permanent maintenance mode. Despite these issues, that it has lasted this long is really a testament to its utility, both inside and outside Google.

I don’t really buy the argument that RSS is a dying or dead format, though I will agree that it has gotten more niche over time and the mainstream is more attuned to the usual social sharing orgy. RSS is a mature, no-frills, firehose of content – since it gave you everything, it was on the consumer of the feed to set filters or develop a strategy to maintain on top of the stream. For me and I’d imagine a lot of geeks, there is a reassurance to receiving everything and then having the ability to customize my consumption, and it’s a manual but deeply personal process that many of us have honed over the years1.

Unfortunately, even if RSS was able to get past the learning curve of the average computer user, it was doomed by its inability to make money, and eventually relegated to just coding tutorial status. It’s not surprising that news is difficult to monetize online; the dearth of RSS services just reflects how hard it has been to monetize this kind of aggregated syndication2. Most ended up failing or pivoting to other services, so that Reader stuck it out this entire time, spartan but reliable, is nothing short of altruistic on Google’s part.

And Reader’s done it for so long that it has attained the status of a utility: it gets out of the way, and you only ever notice it when something goes wrong. It has in fact been the ideal API service: it has remained free to use, has been mostly fast and reliable, and does not place restrictions on third party apps. It has kept steadfast vigilance, even as Facebook changed its API once every other month and Twitter kept on taking its ball and going home. Reader was the exception and the model service for building clients and other dependent services. I guess this shutdown goes to show that even the biggest companies can’t afford to run a free service forever.

Thankfully, there’s been many suggestions and compilations of Reader alternatives, though only a few are attempting to tackle the backend API side of things. For me, I’m trying to decide whether I want to rely on another free service for something as crucial as my news feed; opting to pay for services isn’t exactly a new idea, but taking it a step further and hosting an RSS syncing service through something like Fever does appeal to my geek control freak side.

  1. Of course, there are now services like Prismatic which try to automate this process of surfacing interesting and relevant news, but geeks like being in control and working the gears themselves.

  2. It might also serve as a warning to the current crop of save-for-later apps, e.g., Pocket, Instapaper, Read It Later, and the like.

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Comments 1
  1. Re: Footnote #2:
    Pocket == Re-branded Read It Later. But I too wonder how these services including Feedly, make any money. Interestingly, I did buy Read It Later Pro before it became Pocket and offered 100% free.

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