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On Google Reader

I started using Reader November 30, 2005, a bit over a month after the product was launched (according to the Official Reader Blog).

I remember using Bloglines as my RSS reader of choice before Reader, trying out the new service, hating the “lens” design, and going back to Bloglines. It wasn’t until September 2006, nearly a year later, that I returned after the (first) big redesign, and never looked back.

When I joined Google in 2007, Reader was the product I wanted to work on more than anything else, and I was fortunate enough to be able to work with the amazing team before it was put into maintenance mode in 2010.

It’s obvious why I care, but to many people, the widespread passion around Reader’s shutdown seems strange - why do we care? Who uses feed readers anymore in a world of Twitter and Facebook?

Reader started out as an RSS reader, but it in no way needed to be only an RSS reader. RSS is only the infrastructure that delivers information (which is why Dave Winer is fine to hate on Reader as one of many clients) - it could just as easily have been augmented with Twitter, Facebook, and G+. Except for one problem: this was Google, and it doesn’t take a particularly astute observer of history to see how well Google plays with Twitter or Facebook.

So Reader was caught in a catch-22 of sorts. It needed to grow or die, but in order to grow it needed to expand beyond the scope of RSS to include the other forms of rapidly growing information consumption… that Google was unable to work with (and in Facebook’s case, didn’t want to share). Doing so would also require significantly more resources and an expansion of scope for the product.

Reader vs Twitter & Facebook

Comparing the usage/growth of a product that was an afterthought at Google, and hasn’t been staffed for three years with Twitter and Facebook is silly. Imagine if (somewhat absurdly) Google had decided to invest the resources of G+ into a product like Reader. Calling Reader a niche product isn’t an argument against Reader, it’s an argument against the staffing and support it received throughout its life.

I’ve always been confused why a company with the mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” never valued a product that did that on very personal level. Particularly in a world of increasing information overload, a product designed to take in a variety of sources and present them efficiently and cleanly certainly seems like it would provide value. One friend told me he had replaced Reader by using Twitter, Facebook, Techmeme, and Reddit, which sounds terrifying to me.

Judging by the growth of products like Zite and Prismatic (I use both of these), people are searching for a way to have relevant and interesting information (minus the friend updates, etc) surfaced for them in a way that Twitter and Facebook are pretty bad at. Reader served this through recommended and shared items, but also provided a way for users to explicitly declare what they wanted to see.

Reader provides a carefully controlled environment where you only see things you explicitly care about. No ads. No friend requests. Flexible UI that adapts to your reading style[1]. You might argue that the same content exists on Twitter or Facebook, but they don’t lend themselves to the same kind of publishing, and the UI is cluttered with a myriad of unrelated features and content.

Mike Elgan sums it up nicely:

In fact, Twitter is not a big RSS reader. RSS is something you control, and Twitter is something other people control. (Even if you dedicate a Twitter account exclusively to the same sources of content you had in Google Reader, the viewing options, functionality and everything about Twitter is controlled by Twitter.) That both give you streams of content is a superficial similarity. Fundamentally, they are opposites.

What Google Reader and RSS fans fear is not the loss of a good service and a great format. They fear the loss of control. They fear a future in which decisions about what they see, watch, read and listen to are determined by secret algorithms and the whims of the social media masses.

In the end, there isn’t much to say about the decision itself. Google’s effort to focus makes a lot of sense, and killing a product that wasn’t doing anything fits that, even if it was a self-inflicted stagnation. I think a lot of people’s frustrations are stemming from feeling like Reader was (to them) such an obviously useful and beloved product, and an accompanying sense of outrage and confusion over why Google doesn’t  understand that.

For me, I’ve known that Google either hasn’t understood or cared about Reader for years. I’m less sad for the loss of a product that I loved, and more for the loss of what it could have been, given the proper investment. The bright side is that there are now lots of people out there thinking (and working) on that future. Let’s just hope they don’t get acquired by Google.

Notes

  1. All items vs new items; by source or by folder or river-of-news; titles vs expanded cards; unread counts on or off
  2. I particularly liked this post on the shutdown as well