Let me preface this by saying that I know that this is probably just another episode of “nerd rage.” A niche project with a vocal audience loses support from a giant company that’s trying to streamline its product portfolio. The uproar will likely blow over, but this episode has given me pause. The way Reader has been handled by Google since its inception shows a callous, resistant attitude toward the company’s most passionate and tech-forward customers.
Google chased users away. How did we get here? Google insists that they have no choice but to retire the product because usage has declined. And it has, but only marginally. And not because the product isn’t relevant or useful, but because Google so frustratingly mismanaged Reader that users left out of anger. In October of 2011, Google ripped out the innovative social and feed discovery features that helped users to find new content and subscriptions, and replaced them with a funnel to Google+. Entire communities had already formed upon Reader’s social features. Courtney Stanton does a great job of characterizing Google Reader’s community-building potential, and I implore you to read her thoughts from 2011. She hit the nail on the head when she decries what Google’s “Plusification” did to the service:
In short, this is not a workflow designed around sharing information and communicating about it. This is a workflow designed to make people click on things.
Beyond the social features, Google regularly let pieces of Reader simply break. The “Discover” tab originally showed stories and feeds from users with similar interests, with uncanny precision. I discovered some of the best blogs I read through this tool, which has been completely broken for almost two years. Google never released a Reader iOS app or API, but it was reverse-engineered by passionate developers who were able to deliver beautiful and solid applications against all odds. Despite the obvious demand for this valuable product, the writing was on the wall that Google wanted Reader dead, but those of us who relied on the service so wholly simply couldn’t believe that they’d ever choose to kill it.
Google didn’t even attempt to monetize Reader. Since its conception, Google lacked interest in Reader. Its founder, Chris Wethrell, describes the internal resistance he faced in trying to get the project off the ground:
Even before the project saw the light of the day, Google executives were unsure about the service and it was through sheer perseverance that it squeaked out into the market. At one point, the management team threatened to cancel the project even before it saw the light of the day, if there was a delay.
It’s bizarre that Google didn’t see any value in this product. As Wethrell noted, it provides exceedingly thorough information about a person’s interests, tastes, and social connections. A simple GMail-style strip of ads across the top of the product would have been a fantastic opportunity to leverage this user information and sustain this invaluable service. Google didn’t even want to attempt this. What a colossal misstep.
Where do we go from here? RSS isn’t going anywhere, despite recurrent proclamations of its death. RSS isn’t the same as social. When you decide to wade into a “river of news” or social feed, you don’t see every link. You can’t— the volume is too great. RSS is a intimately personal, surgically-accurate collection of things that matter to you. I want to read every single story that is written that has my name in it, I want to see every single item matching a particular eBay alert, and I want to catch every single post in my best friends’ blogs. Social can’t do any of these things for me.
I plan to keep using an RSS reader, and I have some suggestions, if you plan to as well. (BTW: Here’s a more comprehensive list of alternatives. The following ones seem like the best candidates to me.)
+NewsBlur. This service was formed after Google killed Reader’s social features. It does a great job at recreating the social aspect, with trending stories, pages of shared stories, and robust sharing features. Furthermore, there are NewsBlur apps for both Android and iOS. There’s also a robust API, and this great Android alternative. The service has a free “trial” mode (you can follow 12 feeds), but you can pay $1-$3 per month for a premium account. And you SHOULD, so we can avoid this kind of thing in the future
+TheOldReader. Another pre-G+ Reader clone. Seems to perform very sluggishly, has no app support, and is currently overloaded with feed import requests. Furthermore, there is no mobile app support, though the mobile site is well-designed. It’s hard to recommend this today, but it seems like it could be a viable alternative.
+Feedly. I’ve always thought Feedly’s apps were garish and unwieldy, but they just announced plans to clone Google Reader’s API. If they follow through with this plan, existing Google Reader apps can use Feedly as an RSS-syncing alternative, and you don’t even have to look at Feedly’s native apps. Feedly features easy Google Reader feed import, so you can move your feeds over for a smooth transition when the time comes.
+Fever. This is a premium self-hosted alternative, and not for the faint of heart. If you’re comfortable about hosting your own server and have $30 to spare, it could be a great choice. Fever sorts your unread items by how “hot” they are, so you can just read the most important stuff, and not feel guilty about not achieving “inbox zero”. Also, and this is a huge deal to iOS users, Fever is supported by Silvio Rizzi’s unparalleled Reeder app.
+Selfoss. A free, self-hosted app that looks powerful and beautiful, but I haven’t been able to try it yet. Its responsive design looks useful, but I’d prefer a native app with good caching. Still, worth a look.
+Tiny Tiny RSS. A lightweight recreation of classic Google Reader with keyboard shortcuts and adaptive design. I haven’t had a chance to try this one out, either, but it’s clear that there are plenty of options in the self-hosted space. Fever, however, seems to be the only one with any third party support, as of today.
No, I mean where do we go from here? Oh, yeah. So, Google’s goodwill with me has taken two huge hits this year (R.I.P. Sparrow). I used to be comfortable relying on Google for my online infrastructure, but I feel like I stand on much shakier ground now. My previous justification for this reliance was that Google will definitely be around in 10 or 20 years, whereas some tiny specific startup (like NewsBlur) will almost certainly not. I still mostly feel more comfortable entrusting my online life to Google, but I’d be lying if I weren’t worried about Google “sunsetting” something that isn’t as easily replaced, like Google Voice. I’m going to make a more conscious effort to self-host whatever I can, because I know that I can at least rely on myself. I also have the added benefits of knowing that I’m not being sold to advertisers, and can’t be subject to warrantless government searches of my information. If you’re interesting in self-hosting your online life, check out the ArkOS project by CitizenWeb!