Lunch talk: Google Reader

Thursday, March 14, 2013
File under: Coffee Talk

As you’ve probably heard by now, Google is shutting down Google Reader on July 1, 2013. Reactions are mixed, ranging from people who say that RSS is dead anyway, or that they get all their info from other services like prismatic anyway.

Meanwhile web sites are posting lists of Google Reader alternatives like feedly, flipboard, or newsblur are compiled.

So obviously, thinkberg, who is a big fan of Reader, and I had a lot to discuss over lunch. So what is our take on this?

RSS is dead?

I agree that RSS is probably much too technical for the average user, but what people seem to forget about RSS is that it’s half of the open decentralized social network framework guys like or diaspora are trying to build. You can host your own content, you can subscribe to content no matter where it’s hosted and assemble your own timeline. Also, RSS’s use is much more widespread than you’d probably think. All news sites, and blogs support RSS feeds. The obvious exception are the big social network sites like Google+, and Twitter (although you can export real-time searches as RSS feeds, which is pretty nice), because they want you to spend time on their site while they show you some ads.

It’s not perfect, of course, there are no comments or discussions (but tumblr is also much less interactive than facebook, for example), it’s pull, not push, but the openness and extensibility (in the sense that you could hook up your coffee-machine if you want to) is undisputable.

Google doesn’t “get” social - or end-user products

I think Google shutting down the Reader is mostly another example how Google is relentlessly redesigning their services to meet some grand plan without caring much about whether the user will be happy with the end result or not. It’s almost as if they are taking an engieering approach and have a hard time taking into account anything which is not a technical service requirement.

I guess it’s one thing to optimize Google’s infrastructure internally, where your dependencies are relatively few and clearly defined and you have other Google people at the other end of the line who know that these changes are necessary. Contrast this with a service used by millions of people, most of whom are don’t really want anything to change.

For example, I think people didn’t really care whether Picasa got integrated with Google+, or whether Google Docs became part of Google Drive. So it might have made sense for Google’s long-term goal to have a single social platform which incorporates all these services somehow, but most people are lost somewhere along the line.

It’s not as if Google isn’t trying to get social right, however. Brian Shih, who once was product manager for Google Reader, says on Quora:

Ironically, I think the reason Google always wanted to pull the Reader team off to build these other social products was that the Reader team actually understood social (and tried a lot of experiments over the years that informed the larger social features at the company). Reader’s social features also evolved very organically in response to users, instead of being designed top-down like some of Google’s other efforts.

Google+ to the rescue?

So what about the alternatives? What about Google+?

As thinkberg nicely pointed out, the difference is that Google Reader is (was) a productivity tool, while Google+ is a social network site. Google Reader is optimized to help you sift through many news items quickly, while Google+ wants you to linger (possible to show you as many ads as possible). In the compressed layout, Reader uses exactly one line per item, showing you dozens on a single screen. In constrast, in Google+, you seldom get more than three items per screen.

Of course, you can share items on Google+, but the old Reader was excellent in that it presented shared items also in the same compact view and by users, shared items are simply lost in the your timeline stream.

Finally, and I’m still amazed that this hasn’t changed ever since Google+ was launched, there is no easy bookmark solution in Google+. In Reader, you could star an item to bookmark it for later reading, but there is no way to see all the items you +1’d on Google+. The closes thing I’ve come across is to have a circle called “Bookmarked” and reshare to that circle to bookmark posts.

thinkberg said that this makes perfect sense for Google because they’re only interested in the +1s to improve their search results, not to provide value to the users. Of course, he was just joking, but there is some truth to this. After all, Google+ is a free service and to make sense to Google they need to leverage the information collected there in some other ways, for example in personalized search.

As thinkberg tweeted earlier

the actual problem might also be that these are all free services. Such services are always hard because companies must find ways to exploit the data in some way to still make money, and customers or users have a hard time complaining if the service is changed in fundamental ways.

Or put differently, if I’d paid for Google Reader, I’d be pretty pissed now.

Having paying customers on the other hand makes everything so much easier. The company knows why it’s having a product, and it can also support small user bases. The problem is, especially with new technology, to get people to realize that a service is worth real money, but that is another topic.

Alternative RSS feed readers: there are none

So what about the other alternatives? Well, the problem is that Google Reader pretty much killed the market for classical RSS feed readers like bloglines. Most of the other companies mentioned in the various lists have taken a different approach, trying to create some nice looking newspaper-like experience from your feeds. Unfortunately, as I said above, the strength of Google Reader was to be able to quickly sift through huge amounts of information, and that’s something these newspaper-like apps cannot accomplish.

I personally like prismatic a lot, but that’s again something different. It’s pretty good at finding stuff which is interesting, but you cannot track hand selected news sources that way.

What I’d like to have

So just to compile this for the posterity, what are the features I’d like to see:

  • Track a number of RSS feeds (probably also other sources).
  • Choice between compact view (one line per item is enough) and expanded view.
  • Web view and mobile app, synchronized.
  • Bookmarking capabilities.
  • Sharing feature, but don’t just put everything in my timeline, let me see only shared items or even by specific user.
  • Hide stuff I’ve already seen.
  • I’d be ready to pay around 5$ per month for this.

Basically, someone give me the old Reader, and you’ll have me as a customer instantly.

Oh and in case you haven’t seen this yet:

Posted by Mikio L. Braun at 2013-03-14 15:35:00 +0000

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