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Google recently announced its plans to shut down Google Reader this summer. In immediate response, a change.org petition to keep Google Reader running was created, which gathered an impressive ~83k signatures in about 24 hours! There has been a massive outcry all over the web. Many other feed services slowed down all of a sudden, not being able to cope with the sudden influx of traffic! Though I don't have any numbers on this, I would estimate Google Reader to be the most popular avenue for RSS consumption.

Note: When I say "RSS", I mean open feed protocols in general -- including RSS, Atom, etc.

Reader is an example of how simple software like an RSS aggregator can have have a big impact on its users. It provided a way to keep abreast of a large amount of information, buffered for convenience, to be consumed in deliberate doses. This article wonderfully explains the origins of Google Reader and how it was the ultimate social network for it's users. It also evokes in me a nostalgia for what was and what could have been.

So, the announcement is very sad news. We're one down on an open and distributed way to share things. RSS has slowly been getting shafted by major internet companies, with Google now joining that list. Their actions indicate that a +1 for Google+ implies a -1 for open sharing.

Then again, it's not quite unexpected. Once they rolled out Google+, either they had to integrate Reader into G+, or close it down. That much was clear from the Reader redesign a few months ago. If Google was interested in RSS, they could easily have integrated Reader into what was then the Sparks feature in Google+. I had very much hoped hoped for that, but I guess Google doesn't have a place for RSS in it's vision of the future. In a way, it shows once again how Google doesn't really get platforms.

This is now an interesting situation for RSS -- bad news mixed with a golden opportunity.

The bad news

I don't mean to trumpet the impending death of RSS, but the disinterest from Google (which was the only major player supporting RSS) is worrisome.

Many people use RSS today for following content from blogs and other blog-like publishing platforms. These platforms were conceptualized ~10 years ago, with RSS as the popular sharing mechanism, and we continue to use them in that manner. However, today, it looks like all major (new & popular) avenues to share information: G+, Twitter and Facebook, are walled gardens. You can't read your social network feed through RSS... you need to be logged in to the platform. The other popular trend is a penchant towards native apps for mobile devices, even to publish content. With native apps and closed platforms competing against the open web, it seems like the big internet companies are attempting to lock-in users.

There is another, more immediate worry. Google also owns FeedBurner -- which is probably the most widely used service by webmasters, bloggers, podcasters and other content publishers to generate and manage feeds. If RSS isn't important enough for Google to maintain Reader, then presumably FeedBurner will be on the chopping block soon. Google has already been slowly retiring the FeeBurner API and associated services. Since Google has deactivated AdSense for feeds, I guess they don't see FeedBurner as part of their business plans. If and when it's shut down, the web will be significantly poorer in the ability to share content. Millions of feeds which people have used over the years will suddenly stop working. Without mainstream support for feeds, anyone wanting to reach large audiences is effectively armtwisted into committing to a social networking platform. Which again puts them completely at the mercy of the platform provider.

In the larger picture for consumers, this shows the danger of placing critical utilities in the hands of third-parties. For all you know, someday Google could shut down IMAP support in Gmail, Twitter could stop you from seeing your feed anywhere except the official app, like Facebook forced a switch to the timeline and is systematically eroding users' privacy.

And oh, this is yet another indication that Google has given up it's "Don't be evil" motto.

The opportunity

Thoughts related to the ones above prompted my previous post on RSS, but I did not anticipate anything quite so drastic.

RSS is crucial to the idea of an open web. It provides a protocol by which anyone can publish and anyone can gather that information, in a manner they like. No single entity can control such a distributed protocol. It is the best solution we have for mass communication and sharing, on the internet.

As many optimists choose to see it, Google Reader was the stagnant 800-pound gorilla holding back the RSS sphere. Since Reader had the biggest chunk of entrenched users, there wasn't much competition in the field. With Reader retiring, all other services now have a good incentive to innovate in the fight for the large number of users looking for Reader alternatives.

Open protocols for sharing are too important for them to be maintained by a single big player. They need widespread support and a breath of fresh air. It will be exciting to see what innovations come up to replace Reader and capture users seeking their daily fix of information.



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Published

2013-03-14

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