The lights will go out for a central pillar of Internet technology on July 1st, 2013. Google Reader will cease to be. How will the Internet respond?
Newspaper of the 21st Century
My dad read the newspaper. It was a ritual as much as any religious rite could be. And he wanted me to get in the habit as well. But I laughed at him because nearly everything he was reading I had heard on the radio the day before. The newspaper did have one thing going for it though: you picked up a section, read it, and put it down in a separate place, thus keeping track of what had and hadn’t been read.
Thirty years went by and in some sense, I’m just like my dad. I have a stream of news coming to me, not on paper, but on screens. The difference is that instead of taking the daily paper, I read dozens of news sites, blogs, and other web curiosities. The trouble was that there wasn’t a “done” stack to put what I had read. Then RSS (Real Simple Syndication) was invented. It allowed websites to break up their content into chunks (for instance, new stories) that a program (called an RSS reader) could read, and that program could collect all the chunks, put them in one list (or stream) and present them to me, remembering which ones I read. Brilliant!
It wasn’t long before Google built a superb RSS reader that allowed my RSS stream to follow me, at first from computer to computer, and later from phone to tablet to computer. Officially named “Google Reader”, many came to simply call it “Reader”. For me, using Reader became a habit as essential as checking email. My dad read newspapers. Now I read Reader.
I learned that Reader would be shut down on the evening of March 13th. The feeling was a long way from “where were you when the towers fell?” or “where were you when Challenger exploded?”, yet it had some of the same energy. Something I had come to depend on and then take for granted was going away. The fact that I’d have over three months to close up shop and move on didn’t really matter.
Quickly I found out I wasn’t alone. Forums across the net filled with cries of outrage and betrayal. People started scrambling to figure out how they would function without Reader as their central repository of daily news. The Internet itself buckled under the sudden clamor as one likely successor to Reader was effectively off-line for several hours due to heavy traffic.
Part of what made the loss of Reader more poignant was the sense that this was “our” software. Before the Internet, if you had a computer and I had a computer, then it was very simple and easy to understand who owned what. But the Internet changed what ownership means in some very subtle ways. Any time we use the Web, we are causing other people’s computers to do work for us. Because computation is so cheap it’s all but unmeasurable, no one hardly cares or even notices.
Now add the wrinkle that we ask other peoples’ computers to handle “our” data. No one disputes that my email is my email, even if a corporation like Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft is holding it for me using their hardware. Reader was exactly this kind of service: Google was holding and keeping track of what each of us wanted to read on the Web, data that we felt belonged to us. Yet if Google decides to turn off their servers, what becomes of our data?
Fortunately, Google is well aware of these nuances and in addition to giving us three-plus months to deal with the change, also provides services to export our RSS feeds to our personal computers or other services.
Why Google, Why?
The obvious question in the face of a sudden and unexpected loss is “why?”. In the case of Google Reader, the short answer is “money”. Google is hoping people who use Reader will migrate to their social media platform, Google Plus, for the same needs. Reader couldn’t be monetized, but Plus can. As much value as Google has produced, seemingly for free, they are, at their core, out to make a buck.
Reader is Dead. Long Live the Readers!
Time will tell whether Google made the right move by cancelling Reader. As of this writing, people are still angry at the loss, and by extension, at Google. It’s easy to bring up Google’s own “don’t be evil” motto at a time like this.
Whether Google intends it or not, closing Google Reader may actually constitute a kind of creative destruction. Even before the announcement, there were alternatives to Google Reader as well as services that interfaced with Reader to provide a different or better presentation of the RSS content. Many Reader users, myself included, have avoided experimenting with such services because Reader worked well and there was no reason to change. However, with Reader on the way out, complacent users will be forced to make other arrangements. The passing of Reader opens a gap for these new services to fill. I’ve looked at a few and they seem promising. There’s a very good chance that what fills the gap Reader leaves will surpass the our old standby, Google Reader.
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