Google Reader’s demise levels the playing field

Way back in March, Google revealed plans to shut down eight of its services as part of what it calls an ongoing spring cleaning effort. I was pretty bummed to see that Google Reader will be shut down on July 1. Yes, Google Reader my most used app on web is history now. This is one web app(in simple terms it could get a list of all the recent “new stuff” that a site or a user or a channel has published, so you don’t have to go anywhere, every new thing came inside Reader), that will be remembered by me forever, it made me the regular reader that I’ve become by using it almost everyday since last 7-8 yrs.

My first reaction was: How am I going to work now?
I use Google Reader every day to aggregate and filter news, analysis and research. I cannot begin to tell you how big a difference Reader made to my work flow by saving so much time and effort. Almost every blog, technology website has a RSS(Real Simple Syndication) feed, and I had a great heaping bucket of them in Reader. Being able to go to one place instead of many, enabled me to scan so many more articles in so much less time. Plus, Reader allowed me to search back in old posts. I can’t count the number of times I thought, “I remember reading that in a blog, but not which one” and found it by searching Reader.

I’ve also seen some people argue that we don’t need Reader in the age of social media. Why get an RSS feed when the hivemind recommends the good stuff? Where do you think the hivemind finds the stuff to recommend? From nerds who are monitoring their RSS feeds. I am often aware of stuff in my feed days before I start seeing recommendations on Twitter. In essence, Twitter is a big RSS reader, allowing you to “follow” the people sharing content that you’d like to consume. But, Twitter is real-time and RSS is time-shifted. That simple concept of following gripped, but subscribing to feeds simply did not. Because RSS as a technology is too nerdy, too behind-the-scenes and lacked general consumer appeal.

Google Reader started in 2005 at what was really the golden age of RSS, blogging systems and a new content ecosystem. And it entered the market with big ideas, a clear, clean slate and captured the imagination of early adopters. Reader was great because it centralized a lot of features that made RSS much better for users — you could organize stuff into folders and it would remember what you had and hadn’t read,  plus you could easily save and share articles. It also provided a way for apps to sync those features — so if I read something with Press on Android, I wouldn’t have to see it again on Reeder on iPad.

Since I had to be in a state of getting used to life without Reader eventually, I’ve been looking at alternatives for last few months. Though, I’ve started using Feedly lately, I haven’t finalized yet, which one I’ll use in long term, but Feedly is a strong contender and so is Digg Reader. Considering, Digg was the mother of my online discovery, and it was through it that I landed on sites like LifehackerTechcrunchGigaom, which became my daily drivers since then.

I’ll miss Google Reader, like many other power users. There is a pretty sizable pocket of people(bloggers, journalists, researchers – edge cases in our news consumption behaviors) like us who are upset at Reader’s demise and unfortunately for us, Google is not the right company for niche services. Google wants to create products  that fulfill its core missions: search, social, ads and are used by hundreds of million of users and Google Reader wasn’t one of them. But allowing it to sit out there, neglected and yet still functional, was at least a comfort to this niche crowd, where Reader still served as one of the company’s most-used apps of all time, right up there with Gmail. Reader was for information junkies; not just tech nerds. This market totally exists and is weirdly under-served (and is possibly affluent). But this group, though small, are some of the web’s most engaged users. They are the people building its pieces and underpinnings, and filling it with content. As The Guardian aptly put it, killing Reader is like killing the bees. The damage to the ecosystem extends beyond the hundreds of thousands, or millions rather, impacted directly by Google Reader’s death.

Unfortunately, the idea of RSS was one that never quite gripped with normal Internet users. Sure, for us geeks who absolutely love consuming as much information as possible, RSS is a wonderland. There simply isn’t a better substitute for RSS if you want to collate a wide variety of content in one place.

Reader’s demise, levels the playing field in the feed reading world. Now there are more competitors, more innovation, there are new platforms for distributing feeds, new interfaces. Suddenly, feed readers are a hot topic. Until now, Google Reader was the dominant service and platform, but they didn’t know what to do with it. Reader stopped adding new features back in 2010 and it was in maintenance mode since then. Few dared to challenge its position and most new feed readers were only Reader clients.

Reader’s disappearance is Google’s best idea for saving RSS. From stagnant to vibrant in 3 months. Reader’s demise helped RSS more, than the last 3 years of silence. Some people think that Reader could’ve been successful if Google promoted it more. The truth is that Google Reader was more than just a feed reader, it was probably the most well-connected Google service. No other Google product benefited from so many service integrations.

Missed opportunities
I wonder, did Google and the ecosystem at large misread the tea leaves? Did the world at large see a RSS/reader market when in reality the actual market opportunity was in data and sentiment analysis?

If there were things that went wrong, then there is a lot of positive things that came from Google Reader. One of the main reasons why Reader could exist was because companies and entities with conflicting agendas came together to support RSS and other standards. Google, MoveableTypeBloggerWordPressFlickr and several other web apps believed in creating RSS feeds for easy consumption. In the end it helped the average users.  

But all that is behind us and we might not see similar altruism again. If in the early 2000s, Web 2.0 companies were building platforms that wanted to work with each other, today we have platforms that are closed.

We live in the world of information silos now. Twitter and Instagram have broken up. Facebook is the walled garden of the modern web. There is no common language of sharing and new systems don’t offer RSS. And rightfully so! And unless we have web giants speaking the same language of sharing, there seems to be no future of aggregation.  

Killing Google Reader isn’t the same thing as killing the open web, but the open web isn’t something we should take for granted. We should fight for it, and we should fight for RSS to continue as a part of it. Maybe it’s time to get a better Reader, even if not from Google.

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