Hey! You! Get off of Google’s cloud!
I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the last eight years. I consult its aggregations on my desktop the first thing in the morning, even before retrieving my four daily newspapers from the curb. Later, like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, I nibble on my iPhone feed as I walk to the subway. At work, I keep Reader open to follow blogs and news and , to the neglect of my children, it has been my steady bedtime companion for some time.
So when Google announced last week that it was sending Reader to the software slaughterhouse on July 1, I took to Twitter to object. Knowing that Google was unlikely to give the service a reprieve, the next thing I did was export my Reader settings and shop the alternatives.
One thing I didn’t do was to write a column accusing Google of betraying my trust, as Om Malik, James Fallows, Ezra Klein, Alex Hern of the New Statesman, The Week, and others did. Nor did I vow not to use Google’s new product, an Evernote substitute called Google Keep, ‘lest the company yank the rug out from under me again. I never trusted Google in the first place. I never thought it would support its products forever. As Slate’s Google graveyard attests, the company has routinely created and abruptly killed off software services, often tossing out the minimum viable product and watching to see if it caught on before putting any further effort into developing it.
The old software maxim — if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product — is true of almost every Google service. Google sells your Gmail activity — as well as your searches of the Web, images, maps, and use of its other services — to advertisers. We, the Google Reader product, weren’t producing much, if anything, in revenue for Google, so the company fired us.
The death sentence Google has dealt Google Reader doesn’t mark the end of RSS aggregation, of course. As long as you’ve exported your Reader settings and imported them to another RSS reader, you’ll still be able to consume your usual feeds. What is lost in the Reader kerfuffle is the easy synchronization of feeds across devices, which is dominated by Google, and which is what made Google Reader so splendid: Your iPhone RSS reader always knew what your desktop RSS reader had added or subtracted from your feed or what you’d already read. But all is not lost. As long as Feedly makes good on its promise to clone the Google Reader API (and we switch our RSS readers), we should be able to maintain the synchronization miracle. I’m crossing my fingers.
Having survived being sacked by Google, I still don’t think most users have learned the requisite lessons. Try thinking of Reader as a remarkable gift from Google to consumers, as one economist did a few years ago; he wildly guesstimated it was worth $1 billion to users, with their only investment being the time spent curating their feeds over the years. For Reader users to carp about Google betraying them is like the alcoholic filing a complaint against a bar when it shuts off the free beer. A service run in the cloud, such as Google Reader, requires engineering resources, so who can begrudge Google’s decision to place them elsewhere?
Another lesson learned is that no software is forever, whether it comes advertiser-supported, free, or with a price tag. Anyone who has seen one of their beloved pieces of software decline and vanish from the marketplace — I’m talking about you, XyWrite — knows the heartache of losing a valuable tool. But even beloved operating systems die off and are replaced by better operating systems. (That doesn’t appear to be true at Reuters, where we’re still running Windows XP, an 11-1/2-year-old OS that Microsoft will stop supporting next year.) Google hasn’t put much effort into improving Reader over the years, probably because it never figured out a way to sell a sufficient number of ads against it to justify the development. Instapaper creator Marco Arment, for one, is happy to see Reader die because 1) Google allowed the product to atrophy and 2) Google’s determination to set the price of RSS services at zero to users deterred other companies from entering the market to innovate and create better RSS products.
The death of Google Reader should remind all of us how vulnerable “free” software services can be to market pressures, a point Kevin Drum also makes in his blog today. Free software served from the cloud can vanish overnight, or its features can be altered (“upgraded” is the term Drum aptly and sarcastically invokes) without much warning. The same isn’t ordinarily true of software that you install on your own computer, or services that you purchase.
The biggest lesson of the Google Reader rumpus: You get what you paid for.
What’s your favorite post-Reader RSS reader? Send your review of it in the form of a love letter to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I wish my Twitter feed could still support RSS. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns. Hurrah for RSS!
PHOTO: Coffee cups with Google logos are seen at the new Google office in Toronto, November 13, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Blinch