The demise of Google Reader and the price of free

Google is killing off Reader, its RSS reading service on July 1st. The information hungry online community are in shock - but are they just paying the long-delayed price of using a free product?

A certain section of the internet is in uproar today. The term “Google Reader” was trending on Twitter in some parts of the world, to the bafflement of many. Those who know what it is, and use it, are in a kind of shock today. Reader – Google’s RSS organiser and reader – is being killed off in July, and those who depend on it to keep them informed are trying to figure out what to do next.

There’s a bitter taste in many long-term users’ mouths, though. Once upon a time, there was a whole ecosystem of RSS reading services – and it was Google that killed them off. Aldo Cortesi remembers the halcyon days of the mid-2000s when RSS was exploding in popularity, and Google joined in:

I remember this period well – it was a time of immense excitement, when RSS seemed to be the future, the news ecosystem was vibrant, and this thing called the blogosphere, fueled by peer subscription, was doubling in size every six months. It was into this magic garden that Google wandered, like a giant toddler leaving destruction in its wake. Reader was undeniably a good product, but it’s best quality was also its worst: it was free. Subsidized by Google’s immense search profits, it never had to earn its keep, and its competitors started to die. Over time, the “hyper competitive” RSS reader market turned into a monoculture.

Reader had at least two compelling features that made it the default RSS reader:

  1. It was free. It’s pretty hard for any company to make money from a paid product when such a huge brand is giving a good version of it away for free.
  2. It had an undocumented, but functional, syncing API. For years now, the majority of software RSS readers have been using Google Reader as a syncing backend, so you can access the same account on different devices and have your read and unread status synced between them. Syncing is a hard problem, and Google provided good enough tools that no-one else needed to bother

Tablets and smartphones have actually seen a growth in RSS reader development again. But all these software products are dependent on Google Reader as their backend – a support which is about to disappear.

For the next three and a half months, we’ll see authors scrambling to rewrite their software to support new syncing services, or to remove sync (as one app is doing). Others will abandon their software, as the effort required is too high. FeedDemon for Windows is already terminal. Others will start booting up their own subscription management and syncing services. When one of them looks like as winner, I’ll start paying for it. Why? Well,┬áDave Winer, one of the primary movers behind RSS, posted soon after the news broke, making this exact point:

Next time, please pay a fair price for the services you depend on. Those have a better chance of surviving the bubbles.

He had a point. I’d much rather invest both my attention and my money into a smaller developer with a genuine business model for their RSS reader than once again use a free product from a large corporation for whom it was not a priority. Free is a damn tempting price, but beware. Here be dragons – as the RSS addicts of the web are finding out today.