My introduction to RSS readers came around the same time as when I started to blog daily as after a little while I found myself running dry on general topics to cover and needed to start finding other material for inspiration. It’s all well and good to have a bunch of bookmarked sites to trawl through but visiting each one is a very laborious task, one that I wasn’t keen to do every day just to crank out a post. Thus I found the joys that were RSS feeds allowing me to distill dozens of sites down to a singular page, dramatically cutting down the effort required to trawl through them all. After cycling through many, many desktop based readers I, like many others, eventually settled on Google Reader, and all was well since then.
That was until last week when Google announced that Reader was going away on July 1st this year.
Google has been doing a lot of slimming down recently as part of its larger strategy to focus more strongly on its core business. This has led to many useful, albeit niche, products to be shutdown over the course of the past couple years. Whilst the vast majority of them are expected there have been quite a few notable cases where they’ve closed down things that still have a very active user base whilst other things (like Orkut, yeah remember that?) which you’d figure would be closed down aren’t. If there’s one service that no one expected them to close down it would be Reader but apparently they’ve decided to do this due to dwindling user numbers.
Whilst I won’t argue that RSS is the defacto standard for content consumption these days it’s still proven to be a solid performer for anyone who provides it and Google Reader was the RSS reader to use. Even if you didn’t use the reader directly there are hundreds of other products which utilize Google Reader’s back end in order to power their interfaces and whilst they will likely continue on in spite of Reader going away it’s highly unlikely that any of them will have the same penetration that Reader did. Even from my meagre RSS stats it’s easy to tell that Reader has at least 50% of the market, if not more.
If you doubt just how popular Reader was consider that Feedly, shown above syncing with my feeds, managed to gain a whopping 500,000 users in the short time since Google made the announcement. They were actually so popular that right after the start their site was down for a good couple hours and their applications on iOS and Android quickly becoming the number 1 free app on their respective stores. For what its worth it’s a very well polished application, especially if you like visual RSS readers, however there are a few quirks (like it not being in strict chronological order) which stopped me from making the total switch immediately. Still the guys behind it seem dedicated to improving it and filling in the void left by replicating the Reader API (and running it on Google’s AppEngine, for the lulz).
From a business point of view it’s easy to understand why Google is shutting down services like this as they’re a drain on resources that could be better used to further their core business. However it was usually these niche services that brought a lot of customers to Google in the first place and by removing them they burn a lot of goodwill that they generated by hosting them. I also can’t imagine that the engineers behind these products, many of which were products of Google’s famous 20% time, feel great about seeing them go away either. For something as big as Reader I would’ve expected them to try to innovate it rather than abandon it completely as looking over the alternatives there’s still a lot of interesting things that can be done in the world of RSS, especially with such a dedicated user base.
Unfortunately I don’t expect Google to do an about face on this one as there’s been public outcries before (iGoogle, anyone?) but nothing seems to dissuade them once their mind has been made up. It’s a real shame as I feel there’s still a lot of value in the Reader platform, even if it pales in comparison to Google’s core business products. Whilst the alternatives might not be 100% there yet I have no doubt they’ll get there in short order and, if the current trend is anything to go by, surpass Reader in terms of features and functionality.