Three months ago, Google announced the "retirement" of Google Reader as part of the company's second spring cleaning. On July 1st -- two weeks from today -- the RSS application will be given a gold watch and a farewell lunch, then it will pack up its bits and leave the building for the last time.
The other items on Google's spring cleaning list, most of which are tools for developers, are being replaced by superior (or simpler, friendlier) services: Are you using CalDAV in your app? Use the Google Calendar API, instead; Google Map Maker will stand in for Google Building Maker; Google Cloud Connect is gone, long live Google Drive.
For Google Reader's loyal following, however, the company had no explanation beyond a bland "usage has declined", and it offered no replacement nor even a recommendation other than a harsh "get your data and move on":
Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months.
The move didn't sit well with users whose vocal cords were as strong as their bond to their favorite blog reader. James Fallows, the polymathic writer for The Atlantic, expressed a growing distrust of the company's "experiments" in A Problem Google Has Created for Itself:
I have already downloaded the Android version of Google's new app for collecting notes, photos, and info, called Google Keep... Here's the problem: Google now has a clear enough track record of trying out, and then canceling, "interesting" new software that I have no idea how long Keep will be around... Until I know a reason that it's in Google's long-term interest to keep Keep going, I'm not going to invest time in it or lodge info there.
The Washington Post's Ezra Klein echoed the sentiment (full article here):
But I'm not sure I want to be a Google early adopter anymore. I love Google Reader. And I used to use Picnik all the time. I'm tired of losing my services.
What exactly did Google Reader provide that got its users, myself included, so excited, and why do we take its extermination so personally?
Reading is, for some of us, an addiction. Sometimes the habit turns profitable: The hours I spent poring over computer manuals on Saturday mornings in my youth may have seemed cupidic at the time, but the "research" paid off.
Back before the Web flung open the 10,000 Libraries of Alexandria that I dreamed of in the last chapter of The Third Apple my reading habit included a daily injection of newsprint. But as online access to real world dailies became progressively more ubiquitous and easier to manage, I let my doorstep subscriptions lapse (although I'll always miss the wee hour thud of the NYT landing on our porch...an innocent pleasure unavailable in my country of birth).
Nothing greased the move to all-digital news as much as the RSS protocol (Real Simple Syndication, to which my friend Dave Winer made crucial contributions). RSS lets you syndicate your website by adding a few lines of HTML code. To subscribe, a user simply pushes a button. When you update your blog, it's automatically posted to the user's chosen "feed aggregator".
RSS aggregation applications and add-ons quickly became a very active field as this link attests. Unfortunately, the user interfaces for these implementations – how you add, delete, and navigate subscriptions -- often left much to be desired.
Enter Google Reader, introduced in 2005. Google's RSS aggregator mowed down everything in its path as it combined the company's Cloud resources with a clean, sober user interface that was supported by all popular browsers...and the price was right: free.
I was hooked. I just checked, I have 60 Google Reader subscriptions. But the number is less important than the way the feeds are presented: I can quickly search for subscriptions, group them in folders, search through past feeds, email posts to friends, fly over article summaries, and all of this is made even easier through simple keyboard shortcuts (O for Open, V for a full View on the original Web page, Shift-A to declare an entire folder as Read).
Where I once read four newspapers with my morning coffee I now open my laptop or tablet and skim my customized, ever-evolving Google Reader list. I still wonder at the breadth and depth of available feeds, from dissolute gadgetry to politics, technology, science, languages, cars, sports...
I join the many who mourn Google Reader's impending demise. Fortunately, there are alternatives that now deserve more attention.
I'll start with my Palo Alto neighbor, Flipboard. More than just a Google Reader replacement, Flipboard lets you compose and share personalized magazines. It's very well done although, for my own daily use, its very pretty UI gets in the way of quickly surveying the field of news I'm interested in. Still, if you haven't loaded it onto your iOS or Android device, you should give it a try.
Next we have Reeder, a still-evolving app that's available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It takes your Google Reader subscriptions and presents them in a "clean and well-lighted" way:
For me, Feedly looks like the best way to support one's reading habit (at least for today). Feedly is offered as an app on iOS and Android, and as extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari on your laptop or desktop (PC or Mac). Feedly is highly customizable: Personally, I like the ability to emulate Reader's minimalist presentation, others will enjoy a richer, more graphical preview of articles. For new or "transferring" users, it offers an excellent Feedback and Knowledge Base page:
Feedly makes an important and reassuring point: There might be a paid-for version in the future, a way to measure the app's real value, and to create a more lasting bond between users and the company.
There are many other alternatives, a Google search for "Google Reader replacement" (the entire phrase) yields nearly a million hits (interestingly, Bing comes up with only 35k).
This brings us back to the unanswered question: Why did Google decide to kill a product that is well-liked and well-used by well-informed (and I'll almost dare to add: well-heeled) users?
I recently went to a Bring Your Parents to Work day at Google. (Besides comrades of old OS Wars, we now have a child working there.) The conclusion of the event was the weekly TGIF-style bash (which is held on Thursdays in Mountain View, apparently to allow Googlers in other time zones to participate). Both founders routinely come on stage to make announcements and answer questions.
Unsurprisingly, someone asked Larry Page a question about Google Reader and got the scripted "too few users, only about a million" non-answer, to which Sergey Brin couldn't help quip that a million is about the number of remote viewers of the Google I/O developer conference Page had just bragged about. Perhaps the decision to axe Reader wasn't entirely unanimous. And never mind the fact Feedly seems to already have 3 million subscribers...
The best explanation I've read (on my Reader feeds) is that Google wants to draw the curtain, perform some surgery, and reintroduce its RSS reader as part of Google+, perhaps with some Google Now thrown in:
While I can't say I'm a fan of squirrelly attempts to draw me into Google+, I must admit that RSS feeds could be a good fit... Stories could appear as bigger, better versions of the single-line entry in Reader, more like the big-photo entries that Facebook's new News Feed uses. Even better, Google+ entries have built in re-sharing tools as well as commenting threads, encouraging interaction.
We know Google takes the long view, often with great results. We'll see if killing Reader was a misstep or another smart way to draw Facebook users into Google's orbit.
It may come down to a matter of timing. For now, Google Reader is headed for the morgue. Can we really expect that Google's competitors -- Yahoo!, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft -- will resist the temptation to chase the ambulance?