Quick thoughts on the death of Google Reader

March 13, 2013

The announcement that Google Reader is being shuttered hit me right in the gut (Hitler too). I really don’t even know where to begin with my comments (and frankly I have very little time to write this, so please bear with what likely will be a disorganized, stream-of-consciousness post).

Some of you reading this surely will be asking “WTF is Google Reader?”, but I suspect many of you reacted to the news the same way I did: “Fuck me”.

To be clear, I don’t care about the site per se (though that wasn’t always the case–for example, check out this effusive post from 2007 about switching to Google Reader, for good), I care about the underlying service that’s become the synchronized hub for all of my online news consumption (and that nearly every feed reader on the planet talks to, often exclusively). Most “power” RSS users stopped using the site years ago, after Google gave Reader an API and a slew of OS X and iOS apps came out that offered fantastic experiences that far outpaced what was possible through the web site.

Apart from being a great (and crazy fast) read/unread synchronization tool, the thing that I loved most about Google Reader (the site) was its introduction of mark-as-read-on-scroll. We take it for granted now, but back then it was a revelation, and most of the best-of-breed apps have adopted similar functionality over the years, though many at a snail’s pace (notably, Reeder still doesn’t have this (W-T-F?), but, I stopped using Reeder years ago in favor of Newsify and Mr. Reader, so no matter).

I think what I’m most disappointed about is that Google, as far as I know, never even entertained the idea of charging for the service, much less gave it a trial run. I’d pay good money for the service (and so would developers who have been making handsome livings off of apps that depend on Reader’s API), because it’s something I use, without fail, every single day of my life, and for the most part I really have no complaints. There definitely were some rough patches along its path to dominance, but it’s been pretty damn stable for a long time.

No doubt Twitter has eaten into RSS usage, and has had a role in the declining Reader engagement that Google cites…but not among power users, or, I’d bet, even most users. Twitter never could be an RSS replacement for me–an obsessive completionist–as I like to know exactly what remains in my queue, and I want to be able to jump into the aggregated mess on my own time, and without fear that I’m missing something because 24 hours went by and I wasn’t able to look at it. Plus, how quickly we forget the long fight for full-content feeds to become the norm, and now you’re trying to tell me that a 100-character title is enough? No thanks.

For many, this will be just the blow they need to give up on RSS for good, which sucks (especially for bloggers whose subscriber counts inform what they can charge for ad space), but of course this is great news for apps like the excellent Prismatic, and they know it.

Most major RSS apps will update well before the deadline to handle the slurping of feeds from disparate sources, instead of only from Google Reader (many already do), but the syncing problem likely will persist for some time to come (especially for the best apps), though there are some companies chomping at the bit to pick up where Google will leave off.

Keep in mind too that we’re just a few hours into this news–within a month there will be more services looking to fill this hole than any of us will want to deal with, but deal with it we will because we’re utterly addicted to information. Frankly, I don’t care who ends up winning this (potentially very lucrative) race to mass developer adoption and subsequent synchronization bliss, but I do hope the victor will allow us to pay for the service.

You know, actually, this may end up being the best thing to ever happen to RSS. Time will tell.

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