This Week in RSS Apocalypse

Marco Arment:

Officially, Google killed Reader because "over the years usage has declined". I believe that statement, especially if API clients weren't considered "usage", but I don't believe that's the entire reason.

The most common assumption I've seen others cite is that "Google couldn't figure out how to monetize Reader," or other variants about direct profitability. I don't believe this, either. Google Reader's operational costs likely paled in comparison to many of their other projects that don't bring in major revenue, and I've heard from multiple sources that it effectively had a staff of zero for years. It was just running, quietly serving a vital role for a lot of people.


Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything. While Google did technically "own" Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it's completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they'd like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else's salespeople.

That world formed the web's foundations -- without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn't exist. But they've now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. "Sunset" it. "Clean it up." "Retire" it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

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17 Responses:

  1. The baleful influence of the Plusterfuck was, sadly, only the final nail in Reader's coffin.

    For the most part, Reader was killed by Google's internal corporate culture, which prioritizes and rewards enormous ocean-boiling projects over thoughtful stewardship and incremental improvements to mature products save for the (mostly) untouchable cash cows of search and ads. Nobody wanted to work on Reader because working on Reader was clear and obvious career suicide: you would get no recognition from your peers, no shout-outs at TGIF, no multiplied bonus, no big lucite award plaques... and in the end no promotions and no job.

    Reader was and is far from alone in this category, and all that was the case long before Vic and Larry ascended to the throne and made FriendsterFacebook into their white whale-- just ask the Dodgeball guys, or the XMPP team, or anyone who still admits to working on Google Voice.

    And... that is what it is, I guess; they have and occasionally continue to put out useful products despite all that. But a product at google with no engineering support is a dead man walking, because it's inextricably built on top of a set of infrastructure products (bigtable, GFS, etc) that are themselves constantly changing, with no guarantee whatsoever of backward compatibility between releases. Eventually one of the shared libraries your code depends on gets removed from the relevant package repo, and you can't launch any more servers and you're gone.

  2. brianvan says:

    "I have no information other than public speculation. But I know what really happened, because my theories are all correct."

    I'm not convinced that Google shut down any of its products in order to steer unwilling customers toward products that Google can better monetize.

    I'm not saying it's impossible. And certainly Google's silence fuels speculation. But solid evidence doesn't exist here. Google's terse reasoning for shutting down Reader may be all there is to it. We're wasting our time to dwell on it.

    Google doesn't own RSS, and shutting down Reader didn't stop anyone from consuming RSS feeds. As much as the news was dreadful, the transition amounted to a slight inconvenience for many people.

    It's just a shame that it took so long for other companies to effectively create and promote RSS readers that were superior to Google's free and easy option. In fact, many of them are only "superior" right now because Google Reader isn't activated at all at the moment.

    That situation should be a lesson to us about letting "the market" dictate software production.

    Now, if we would all prefer to turn our attention to what Adobe did to Photoshop and that infernal subscription model, we now have yet another public software requirement that needs addressing sooner rather than later.

    • mds says:

      Google doesn't own RSS, and shutting down Reader didn't stop anyone from consuming RSS feeds.

      Indeed. I subscribe to RSS feeds via my e-mail client, since that's an application I have open most of the time anyway. Google Reader's demise hasn't affected me, since I'm not synchronizing feeds across multiple devices (Yes, I'm hopeless. Now get off my lawn.). What has affected me is Twitter finally killing their version 1.0 API, which stops me from consuming RSS feeds of certain Twitter accounts as I was accustomed to doing. In my book, Twitter's ever-escalating savagery towards third-party means of accessing their content definitely earns them their place in Arment's rant.

      • brianvan says:

        I agree with that much.
        But that's a more malicious strike against open data access than anything Google did, based on what we know for sure. Stopping a feed consumer doesn't hurt feed consumption. Ending feed availability absolutely hurts feed consumption

        • mds says:

          ... which, upon a closer reading of Arment's piece, he might actually be excusing:

          This isn’t an issue of “openness”, per se — Twitter, for instance, has very good reasons to limit its API. You aren’t entitled to unrestricted access to someone else’s service.

          Though this could be aimed specifically at third-party services piggybacking on Twitter. That strikes me as somewhat different from "You can simply type in the web address for someone's Twitter account and update it indefinitely, but you are no longer permitted to view the same content directly via RSS, because reasons."

        • Ben says:

          So you didn't notice that Google shut down all of the RSS feeds coming out of Google Alerts when they shut down Reader?

          • brianvan says:

            Alerts feeds were a utility that relied on the Google Reader system, and were disabled with Google Reader.

            That said, it only scraped information from other sources. No published content on the Internet was affected or disabled by that move. So the effect is along the same lines as what happened with Reader itself... the web content is still out there. Google's move merely shut down a utility that allowed web search query results to be viewed in RSS (and the Alerts feature is kinda lame anyway nowadays, I hear)

            That is much different from what Twitter did to make sure none of its user streams were reachable via RSS. While the original content is still available via Twitter's web app, the original content source in RSS no longer exists and you can't use a RSS reader to access it. It's Twitter's move to make sure user-generated content can't be viewed in RSS. It's the end game in a process begun long ago, starting with making the RSS feed impossible to find after it had been something that was helpfully published with each user profile page.

  3. James says:

    It would have been dead easy to monetize Reader with context-dependent ads. Of course it was G+ megalomania, which I'm convinced will fade over time. Peer-to-peer office apps including email will happen eventually. I can taste colors.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      So easy, it was actually done, I am reliably assured by an actual bona fide Google employee. But killing Reader was the order from on high, and if "doesn't generate revenue" was a necessary prerequisite it was easy to arrange that by turning off the advertisements.

      When you're a huge corporation, of any sort, you reach a point where it's possible to justify doing something seemingly insane, as a means to an end which is itself seemingly insane, on the basis that surely somebody, somewhere, must have a bigger plan that justifies that larger goal, right? Perverse incentives avalanche.

    • Mitch says:

      The G+ angle is strange though:

      * Reader might not have had a huge audience, but RSS addicts would seem to be the type of seed users you'd want in your ecosystem if you're trying to launch a social network
      * There are obvious integration points. For instance, they could have automatically added a "Your Circles" directory to your feed list.

      The way they just threw it away instead makes me think at some level even Google doesn't care about G+ any more.

  4. Dara says:

    Facebook Destroys Everything. It really does. I wrote that up - a lot of which sounds very familiar in this post - as a related article in the Music in the Post-Scarcity Environment series that got collected here in comments a while ago. (It's up two eight articles plus two related articles - one of which involves YouTube mistreating artists.)

    I have honestly no idea what to do about it, though. So many people seem to flock to that neoAOL model and don't mind or even actively enjoy having content they seek be replaced by paid corporate advertising. I just don't even, I really don't.

  5. GDorn says:

    Speaking of open and decentralized, you're serving up your anti-hotlinking image to users of The Old Reader.

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