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.

13 comments

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This looks like an RSS feed for your posts on Twitter to me: http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/user_t imeline.rss?screen_name=felixsalmon

Posted by bteeter | Report as abusive

Is Google becoming Evil? Did they just say “don’t do evil” in the beginning to slip under the radar? Who is anyone anymoe, they ( meaning all now) constantly talk ” values” but you will never hear anyone talk about how their “actions” match the “values” they cling to so dearly in their TALK. No one walks the talk anymore, from Pope to prostitute you can’t trust a single soul. Find one good soul and God will probably save us all. Well, good luck with that.

Posted by web2mon | Report as abusive

Honestly I liked Felix’s insta reaction on twitter better yesterday.

With Digg announcing they’re going to have their own version of google reader. Feedly announcing immediately that they’ve actually been working on something to replace google reader when it finally shuts down. Not to mention a number of other programs or server side add ons. So the answer is no: RSS isn’t dead.

That said, sadly, Felix is probably right that it is dying.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

@web2mon – that anybody would ever believe Google when it said, “do no evil” was clearly fooling themselves.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

the more important question, I think, is would the death of RSS mean the death of blogs? What do you think Felix?

Posted by Esguitos | Report as abusive

“I love unsecured wifi networks, and have yet to find any empirical data supporting the thesis that they cause real damage.”

It’s hard to generate empirical data about the damage of unsecured networks, because many victims are unaware they have been compromised via open wi-fi. The tools to eavesdrop on open networks are free and will run on any used $100 laptop. You can sit on the other side of a coffee shop and capture all kinds of internet communications without anyone even knowing. If they ultimately break into an account of yours, you will have no way of knowing it’s because you surfed in a coffee shop (disclosure: I work for a company that builds products designed to stop that kind of activity).

The $7 million settlement and the decision to drop RSS reader are not linked. It’s just not worth Google’s time to fight something that will only cost $7 million to end. You’re reading way too deep into that decision.

As for their reader, so what? It wasn’t very good, anyway, once I started using Chrome instead of FF, I looked for a better RSS reader, and found one in RSS Live Links. Google spent so little effort on improving their reader that it never even reached the hobby status of Apple TV. They dropped it because it probably couldn’t get 10 minutes of executives time in any given week.

This also doesn’t mean Google will become less of a utility or public service; rather the opposite. There are other options for RSS readers, and the public doesn’t need Google. This will allow them to focus on utilities and services that society can use but no others are providing.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

But will news sites and blogs keep offering feeds? That seems more important than the sync service that Google was offering.

Posted by Ivanonymous | Report as abusive

there are a lot of us who will quit, rather than switch to facebook and twitter…

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive

If it is the death of RSS, then what Google just did was spit on the grave stone of Aaron Swartz.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

There are plenty of ways to aggregate RSS feeds. I read you through LiveJournal.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

GRRR: Aaron Swartz was erroneously credited all over the dang Internet with “inventing” or “co-inventing” RSS. He did not. I was deeply involved with Web development and meeting with, speaking at, and interviewing folks working on RSS and other specifications.

Aaron joined a key group formed in part by O’Reilly & Associates (then a book publisher) to create a more robust spec to replace RSS 0.9x, which was developed by Netscape and made useful and popular by Dave Winer. Winer is legendarily difficult to deal with, but he did an amazing job in making RSS popular for blogs and, very quickly, news sites.

The “RSS 1.0″ spec that Aaron contributed to was an entirely different and incompatible effort with similar aims, and was ultimately released and used, but it’s a subset of all feeds subscribed. In fact, RSS 0.9x, 1.0, 2.0 (Winer update), and Atom (a different standard) all more or less co-exist and nobody cares about the differences.

Aaron deserves credit for many things but inventing RSS isn’t one of them. The fact that RSS comes in three forms and all are named the same is danged confusing.

Posted by GlennFleishman | Report as abusive

I still can’t understand what the “cost” is for google to maintain Reader…it’s a framework already built. And no one is asking for improvements. So why kill it?

Posted by CHAMP322 | Report as abusive

I hate this kind of thing.

In what damn universe is twitter a replacement for RSS? RSS is more than link sharing, for goodness sake, and all the false equivalence that it is is so grating.

Twitter doesn’t replace it. Facebook doesn’t replace it.

Why everyone seems to want one tool for all tasks is beyond me. RSS is for one thing, and it’s good at that thing. Shoehorning some similar task into FB is a loss for everyone.

And twitter, for god’s sake usually you can’t even read the damn URL since it’s shortened, much less the title of the article or the content. It’s like replacing a newspaper or magazine with a bunch of closed envelopes that contain one article a piece, with little or no context for each. Which is to say, manifestly worse.

Anyway, soapbox over for the moment. I’ll be taking my RSS feeds to The Old Reader (apparently appropriately as i seem to be some kind of curmudgeonly gray beard), and continuing to happily read what i want, rather than try to digest a random firehose of twitter links.

Posted by kbenton | Report as abusive