Useful service does not fit Google's plans

22:55, Apr 02 2013

It is perhaps fitting that I first heard of Google Reader's demise on the social network many have tipped as having replaced it.

The announcement was made by Google more than a fortnight ago, and I caught wind of it while on holiday when I checked Twitter for the umpteenth time that day.

Google Reader is (or was, I suppose) a free rich site summary (RSS) aggregator that allowed users to subscribe to feeds from sites they were interested in.

The service simplified the internet, meaning you could consume content from a variety of sites, without having to visit them all individually.

But evidently it did not fit with Google's business model (cute animated logos and Himalayas street-view cameras are more lucrative), so the company will shut it down on July 1.

This move has been seen by many as an example of why you should use a service only from companies whose core focus is that service, and why you should pay for services you like if you can.


Since the announcement was made, an initial mass outcry was quickly replaced with sneers from tech bloggers claiming the service was outdated and had turned browsing the internet into a chore, with unread counts to clear like an email inbox.

Some of these posts popped up in my Reader feeds, ironically.

Now that Reader will disappear, other services can take RSS technology further and capture more users, such bloggers said.

Besides, social networks like Twitter and Facebook are much preferable, because you can follow people with interests similar to yours and rely on them to surface the interesting links.

Indeed, social sharing has many advantages: there are no unread counts to stress you out, links are usually more timely and fresh, and you can see a greater range of material as people retweet or share content from people they follow.

But some of the supposed advantages of social news can double as problems.

The transient nature of social networks, particularly fast-paced ones like Twitter, make it possible to miss posts and stories from people you care about.

This is particularly true for us Down Under, who are asleep while most of the United States and Britain are up and tweeting.

By the time we wake up, we may have missed stories and conversations we would otherwise have been interested in.

I've thought often of creating a service which delayed tweets or posts from selected Twitter accounts, meaning they would arrive in your feed while you were awake, but until I get around to building such a tool (never, probably), Google Reader did a similar job.

When I first started using the service, I added the feeds of almost every website I frequented, which was a huge mistake.

Sites like (then-top dog) Digg, or basically any news site, simply updated too frequently, meaning when I logged in after a day away from the computer I would frequently face an unread count in the hundreds.

I quickly wised up and, from then, used Reader to keep tabs on a few dozen sites which updated relatively infrequently - things like XKCD's What If? series, Charlie Brooker's weekly columns, in the Guardian, or Niemann Storyboard's Why's this so good? series.

While I adore these sites, there are just too many and their updates are too infrequent and unpredictable for me to reasonably expect to catch them all.

At last count, there were about 50 such subscriptions and, now that I've whittled them down to that number, I never open the site and face a huge "inbox" of news to get through.

If Twitter is a rushing river and Facebook is a slightly slower stream, then for me Google Reader was a more modest trickle with a dam at the end.

I disagree that Twitter or Facebook or whatever other social networks are to come will be able to recreate that same experience. Their focus is on real-time conversations, and they do not wait.

But in any case, Reader is now gone, and us RSS obsessives will need to find a new way to rationalise a fast-paced and disparate internet.

Many are suggesting Feedly, a beautiful service which exists as an app in Chrome, on iOS and on Android.

It's incredibly easy to shift your feeds over to the service, and it is worth checking out, because it has a number of features (the ability to save something to read later, the ability to share on social media) which Reader was lacking.

Personally, I'm in no hurry to move over - Google Reader has a few more months left, and I'd like to see how the RSS aggregator landscape develops before I commit to anything.

With such important and useful services able to be swept away on a whim, I want to be careful.

After all, I've been hurt before.