Ramblings of General Geekery

The Death of Google Reader

After the infamous announcement that Google was shutting down Google Reader, there was a lot of debates around the use of online services, especially free ones, and whether we can trust a company to keep such services up indefinitely.

Of course, nothing can last “indefinitely”, and probably nothing will last until you die. You have to expect that Gmail, Facebook, iTunes, Amazon Kindle and any other service you’re currently using won’t last for more than, say, 20 years (and that’s being generous). You need to plan accordingly.

Marco Arment sums this up on his blog:

Always have one foot out the door. Be ready to go.

This isn’t cynical or pessimistic: it’s realistic, pragmatic, and responsible.

That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I choose programs, services and products that don’t take my data away from me. It makes it easier to switch to something else if I need/want to, and it future-proofs what I spend money on.

But that’s where it gets interesting, because Google Reader was pretty open to begin with. Google may have become this data hoarding and privacy raping monster over the years, but one thing they always had going for them was the Data Liberation initiative. With it, you effectively always had one foot out the door. You could, at any moment, download a list of all your subscriptions in an open, standardized format, along with a collection of all your stars, comments, and shares. You may be disrupted for a while because you would need to adapt to a new feed reader, but you could switch, just like you can switch text editors or operating systems.

What’s wrong with the Google Reader situtation has nothing to do with your data, or with using a free service (although that is an important subject too). What happened is that Google Reader became a lot more than a free online feed reader. It became a single choke point for virtually every feed reader or news aggregator in the world. Google is of course to blame for making it a collateral damage of their social-wannabe delusions, but we are equally to blame for letting all those programs like Flipboard, Pulse or NetNewsWire rely on a single service that was never really intended to be used that way. It’s understandable it ended up this way, because relying on Google Reader meant easier adoption for new users and not having to worry about complex problems like data storage, metadata syncing, and interoperability… but it doesn’t make it the right decision either. We are to blame because we were constantly asking for Google Reader support. It became a feature you couldn’t ship without.

The death of Google reader is not about losing a product we love – it’s about breaking an entire eco-system of products and workflows.

Hopefully, we’ll recover and things will be better, but it does bring up another debate: the one about how we rely so much on other single choke points like Twitter and Facebook. Ideally, everything should be federated, like email, but I tried looking at distributed alternatives, and they’re just not working well enough. If the links you share and photos you post are of any value to you, I’d suggest you start looking at data harvesting solutions. I know I am.