Did Google just kill RSS?

By Felix Salmon
March 14, 2013

On Tuesday, Google paid $7 million to settle charges with a coalition of 38 states in relation to its privacy breaches. The 14-page agreement is pretty detailed, and includes promises from Google to spend a substantial amount of effort educating the public about the importance of securing wifi networks. (Which gives me a sad: I love unsecured wifi networks, and have yet to find any empirical data supporting the thesis that they cause real damage.)

On Wednesday, Google announced that it was shutting down Google Reader.

I’m not saying that the second event was directly caused by the first, but the two are linked. As the NYT explains today, the settlement is no less than an attempt to change the very culture of Google, to make it less freewheelingly Silicon Valley and more of a mature and responsible corporate giant.

Google Reader was a part of that freewheeling culture, although just how freewheeling Google was is open to debate. Om Malik has a fantastic interview with Reader’s founder, Chris Wetherell, who hacked it together with a small team and who never really managed to get Google senior management interested in the product or its potential.

“There was so much data we had and so much information about the affinity readers had with certain content that we always felt there was monetization opportunity,” he said. Dick Costolo (currently CEO of Twitter), who worked for Google at the time (having sold Google his company, Feedburner), came up with many monetization ideas but they fell on deaf ears. Costolo, of course is working hard to mine those affinity-and-context connections for Twitter, and is succeeding. What Costolo understood, Google and its mandarins totally missed.

But whether or not Reader was ever going to be a good business for Google, it was from day one a fantastic public service for its users. Google started as a public service — a way to find what you were looking for on the internet — and didn’t stop there. Google would also do things like buy the entire Usenet archives, or scan millions of out-of-print books, or put thousands of people to work making maps, all in order to be able to get all sorts of information to anybody who wants it. All of that was good business, as Daniel Soar explained in 2011:

Google is learning. The more data it gathers, the more it knows, the better it gets at what it does. Of course, the better it gets at what it does the more money it makes, and the more money it makes the more data it gathers and the better it gets at what it does – an example of the kind of win-win feedback loop Google specialises in – but what’s surprising is that there is no obvious end to the process.

The end to the process, it turns out, is the government — the Germans, of course, but also US states and many other authorities around the world. Governments love gathering data themselves, but they’re less excited when a private, for-profit company does it — and often does it better than they themselves can do it. What’s more, while many of their citizens are still excited about Google and its range of offerings, a lot of them are worried, too, that they’re losing their privacy and that Google has a scary amount of information about them.

Meanwhile, Google was becoming too big to manage, with far too many bits and pieces which could in theory help the broader company but which in practice, like Reader, just sat there using up resources and contributing very little in return. So Larry Page decided that he would start killing them off, and making Google more focused; I’m sure that decision was made easier by the fact that if Google now needs to control the amount of information it collects about people, it can’t have engineers freewheelingly making unilateral decisions to start collecting exactly that kind of information. Dick Costolo’s ideas were probably great in 2005; in 2013, they would be politically suicidal.

The result is that Google is going to be less of a utility, less of a public service, and more of a company with a constrained set of products. The problem with the death of Reader is that it was the architecture underpinning lots of other services — the connective tissue of just about all RSS readers and services, from Summify to Reeder to Flipboard. You didn’t even need to use Google Reader; it was just the master central repository of your master OPML list, all the different feeds that you were subscribed to. Google spent real money to provide that public service, and it’s going to be sorely missed. As Marco Arment says, “every major iOS RSS client is still dependent on Google Reader for feed crawling and sync.”

Arment sees a silver lining in the cloud, saying that with Google gone, “we’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade.” I’m less sanguine. Building an RSS sync platform is a hard and pretty thankless task, it costs real money, and it might not work at all — especially in a world where less and less content is actually available in RSS format. (You can subscribe to my Tumblr feed in RSS format, but there’s no such feed for my posts on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Path or even Google+.)

RSS has been dying for years — that’s why Google killed Reader. It was a lovely open format; it has sadly been replaced with proprietary feeds like the ones we get from Twitter and Facebook. That’s not an improvement, but it is reality. Google, with Reader, was really providing the life-support mechanism for RSS. Once Reader is gone, I fear that RSS won’t last much longer.

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