Google Reader post-mortem: The death of the API, the rise of the all-in-one, and the return of the RSS reader

Well, it’s a couple of days after the death of Google Reader, and just about time for the post-mortem wrap-up. There are a few articles offering different perspectives on the event, and we’ll start with one by Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper.

Marco believes that Google killed Reader, despite it having literally millions of users, because it simply didn’t fit in with the way Google wanted the Internet to work. It was a holdover from the era of open APIs, when services made it easy to use them with other services. The problem is, then Facebook happened, and showed how successful a site could be if, instead of reaching out to cooperate with other services, it did everything itself. As Jeremy Keith writes in an article Marco links:

Once Facebook had proven that it was possible to be the one-stop-shop for your user’s every need, that became the model to emulate. Startups stopped seeing themselves as just one part of a bigger web. Now they wanted to be the only service that their users would ever need …just like Facebook.

Seen from that perspective, the open flow of information via APIs—allowing data to flow porously between services—no longer seemed like such a good idea.

Not only did APIs go away, but so did forms of markup that helped make services interoperable. And so did a lot of RSS feeds. You can’t get RSS feeds of activity from Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, because that would give you a reason not to use their service.

Marco writes:

Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything. While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

This reminds me of those recent remarks by that W3C boffin who insisted that if we don’t incorporate DRM into the new HTML standard, it could lead to some parts of the Internet being “walled off.” Why does anybody believe corporate interests anymore when they claim they want “openness”?

Meanwhile, Alex Kantrowitz at Forbes interviewed Google Reader’s founder, Chris Wetherell, and one of his former Reader team members, Jenna Bilotta, who are no longer with Google and working on a new project of their own. Wetherell says that he could never found something like Google Reader in today’s Google corporate environment.

Whereas some of Google’s most successful services formerly arose out of employee side projects—Gmail, Google News, Ad Sense, and, of course, Reader—and whereas Google has been known to kill off unsuccessful projects (Google Wave being the most obvious example), this is the first time Google has killed off a project that was completely successful, and still in widespread use by literally millions of people. Wetherell and Bilotta feel that this could have a chilling effect on employee innovation—if they know their project could be killed off if it doesn’t help Google+, they might be less likely to go ahead with it.

“If you have this big idea,” Wetherell said, “It might be easier to leave the company. You might feel this. I’m not sure. But someone might feel like they should just leave the company rather than finding a way to explore it within Google and then have Google say in a couple years ‘It doesn’t matter how many millions of people are using the thing, we’ve got larger concerns.’”

Meanwhile, ex-Yahoo engineer Fei Deng thinks that the closure of Google Reader could be a big opportunity for Yahoo. He posits a “smart” service in which Yahoo leverages all the information and technology it already has to build a “smart” news feed that could “learn” what interests you and call your attention to the posts you would be most likely to care about. To some extent, this is just pie in the sky, since he’s not currently with Yahoo and would have no knowledge of or influence over any services Yahoo might come up with.

But he does have it right that Reader’s closure presents a big opportunity, and not just for Yahoo but for everyone. Feedly is the biggest winner, it seems, but there are a number of other Google Reader clones, like The Old Reader or InoReader or plenty of others. (Just google “Google Reader substitutes” and you’ll find that everyone has a top five, top seven, top however-many list.) If you missed out, you can still export your Google Reader subscription information until July 15th. After that, it’s gone for good.

In a way, Google Reader’s closure is one of the best things that could possibly have happened to the RSS ecosystem. Google Reader was so much better than everything else when it came out that it essentially killed every other major multi-platform synchronizing RSS reader dead. NetNewsWire was the big one back then, and after Google Reader hit, NNW basically tanked. But guess what? It’s back now! And so are many others. There’s no Google killer app anymore, so now lots of apps are free to compete against each other.

Which is not to say all of them are necessarily good. Mozilla coder Jamie Zawinski chronicled his less-than-salutary experiences with Feedly and Newsify in posts to his blog. He was disgruntled that his favorite iOS app, Reeder, apparently was moving to a pay-only service. However, I learned that Reeder was going to support Feedly’s servers after all, though only the iPhone version is available at the moment.

Still, even using the iPhone version at double-size on my iPad offers me a better user experience than using either Feedly or Newsify on it. (Alas, the new version of Reeder requires a newer OS than my first-generation iPod Touch is able to run. I had managed to keep the most recent possible version I could find running right up until Google Reader died, but now I don’t have any way to read RSS in my pocket and finances don’t look like getting a newer pocket-sized device any time soon unless someone wants to send me one.)

7 Comments on Google Reader post-mortem: The death of the API, the rise of the all-in-one, and the return of the RSS reader

  1. Another lesson in how much nonsense corporations put out. “Do no evil”? Pull the other one, Sergy.

    I moved everything over to Feedly and find that it works just as good as Google Reader (although probably not as fast. I used to post on planetpeschel and switch over to GR to see it pop up).

    And while Facebook showed the promise of a walled-off garden, it’s not going to be able to capitalize on it. I’ve already taken down my fan page, and set my privacy setting on my personal page to friends only. I rarely go there anyway, because it’s so difficult to use and overrun with ads. At this pace, they’re heading into the toilet, in just enough time for Mark Zuckerberg to cash in and live the life of philanthropy and image rebuilding.

  2. Bad over by google that reeks of arrogance.
    Still too early to tell the winners and losers.
    But use of the OPML standard has probably increased dramatically.

  3. I was puzzled by the comment “You can’t get RSS feeds of activity from Twitter…” because Flipboard allows you to bring in your Twitter lists. Not all of Twitter but those things you have grouped into a specific List. For more info see http://inside.flipboard.com/2012/07/17/make-your-own-flipboard-sections-with-twitter-lists/

  4. Not to get too far off topic but… OPML? That’s not the same thing as RSS, though they have the same roots and format their purpose is different.

    And there are actually several RSS standards.

    The original from Dave Winer (for those who remember his company that wrote Frontier (which is now open source) and Radio and some older Outliner software and a new company that does outliners in web browsers) and a version developed by a committee (I don’t recall the story there other than Dave is a polarizing figure which somehow led to a separate effort to improve the RSS standard). And then there’s Atom, a competing standard with a similar goal.

  5. LOL, yes but the only efficient way to move feeds from one service to another is via OPML. If a user hadn’t done this before, it will be a first exposure to it.

  6. “You can’t get RSS feeds of activity from Twitter, or Facebook”

    Yes you can … and yes you can. In fact, you can even get RSS feeds of Facebook pages directly from Facebook. They just don’t tell you about them anymore.

  7. Just found out on the Google Product forums that I can import my existing Google Reader feed subscriptions into Google Currents by going to Feeds and hitting Customize – that was a life saver. Cumbersome for those with many feeds, though, and Google Currents is hardly an ideal RSS reader.

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