Google Reader lived on borrowed time: creator Chris Wetherell reflects

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You would think that Chris Wetherell, an early creator of Google Reader (and part of the team that eventually made it happen) would be feeling sorry for himself Wednesday night — after all, Google had just decided to euthanize a product he (and others) had spent countless months building.

And yet, he was in good sprits, focusing instead on good things that were happening in his life — his new startup, Avocado (an intimacy application much like Pair and Couple) finally has a new office and is growing like a weed on the Android platform. He has ample money from investors such as General Catalyst and Lightspeed Venture Partners. So perhaps that is why he doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

Wetherell, who spent four years on the product left Google and later joined Twitter, co-started Thing Labs and worked on Brizzly before arriving at his new idea.

IMG_5552When I asked the Beaverton, Oregon, native about his emotional state, he quietly pointed out that he has had years to prepare for today.

As we dug into steaming plates of vegetarian (and super spicy) Chinese food at Henry’s Hunan, a block away from his and my office, Wetherell joked that he had lost his innocence about the business world a long time ago and had developed a thick skin. “I have seen a lot worse decisions than this,” he quipped, in between sips of piping hot soup.

A slow lingering death

“When they replaced sharing with +1 on Google Reader, it was clear that this day was going to come,” he said. Wetherell, 43, is amazed that Reader has lasted this long. Even before the project saw the light of the day, Google executives were unsure about the service and it was through sheer perseverance that it squeaked out into the market. At one point, the management team threatened to cancel the project even before it saw the light of the day, if there was a delay.

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“We had a sign that said, ‘days since cancellation‘ and it was there from the very beginning,” added a very sanguine Wetherell. My translation: Google never really believed in the project. Google Reader started in 2005 at what was really the golden age of RSS, blogging systems and a new content ecosystem. The big kahuna at that time was Bloglines (acquired by Ask.com) and Google Reader was an upstart.

And it entered the market with big ideas, a clear, clean slate and captured the imagination of early adopters despite some glitches. The Google Reader team, which included Chris (who was the Senior Software Engineer), worked hard to keep pushing the product forward. Among the folks who worked on the project included backend guru Ben Darnell, Mihai Parparita and Jason Shellen.

Missed opportunities

I wonder, did the company (Google) and the ecosystem at large misread the tea leaves? Did the world at large see an RSS/reader market when in reality the actual market opportunity was in data and sentiment analysis? Wetherell agreed. “The reader market never went past the experimental phase and none was iterating on the business model,” he said. “Monetization abilities were never tried.”

“There was so much data we had and so much information about the affinity readers had with certain content that we always felt there was monetization opportunity,” he said. Dick Costolo (currently CEO of Twitter), who worked for Google at the time (having sold Google his company, Feedburner), came up with many monetization ideas but they fell on deaf ears. Costolo, of course is working hard to mine those affinity-and-context connections for Twitter, and is succeeding. What Costolo understood, Google and its mandarins totally missed, as noted in this November 2011 blog post by Chris who wrote:

Reader exhibits the best unpaid representation I’ve yet seen of a consumer’s relationship to a content producer. You pay for HBO? That’s a strong signal. Consuming free stuff? Reader’s model was a dream. Even better than Netflix. You get affinity (which has clear monetary value) for free, and a tracked pattern of behavior for the act of iterating over differently sourced items – and a mechanism for distributing that quickly to an ostensible audience which didn’t include social guilt or gameification – along with an extensible, scalable platform available via commonly used web technologies – all of which would be an amazing opportunity for the right product visionary. Reader is (was?) for information junkies; not just tech nerds. This market totally exists and is weirdly under-served (and is possibly affluent).

If there were things that went wrong, then there is a lot of positive things that came from Google Reader, Wetherell said. He believed that one of the main reasons why Google Reader could exist was because companies and entities with completely conflicting agendas came together to support RSS and other standards. Google, MoveableType, Blogger, WordPress, Flickr and several other web apps believed in creating RSS feeds for easy consumption. “In the end it helped the average users,” said Wetherell.

But all that is behind us and we might not see similar altruism again, Wetherell theorized. I agree with him. If in the early 2000s, Web 2.0 companies were building platforms that wanted to work with each other, today we have platforms that are closed.

We live in the world of silos now. Twitter and Instagram have broken up. Facebook is the Soviet Union of the modern web. The new systems don’t offer RSS or feeds. “There is no common language of sharing,” he bemoaned. And rightfully so! And unless we have web giants speaking the same language of sharing, there seems to be no future of aggregation.

Built at Google Scale

Google data centerMarco Arment said it is good that Google Reader is shutting down, because “we’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade.” It won’t be easy or trivial. As we finished up our dinner, Wetherell said that it took a lot to make Google Reader work.

For instance, it was Google Crawler that gave the system ability to make lightning-fast connections and bring up recommendations. It is one of the main reasons it cannot be open sourced. The systems are too intertwined with Google’s search and other infrastructure to be sold as well.

In addition, Google had a separate recommendations team fine-tuning Google Reader, and those people don’t come in cheap. And let’s not forget that it was Google’s infrastructure that allowed millions of accounts to be hosted and many billions of items — photos, videos, text objects — to be saved for people to consume them at their leisure.

It wasn’t — and it still isn’t — a cheap exercise, said Wetherell, rationalizing why he somewhat understands Google’s predicament. “This is and will always be a Google-level problem, especially if you are building a service for more than a few people,” he said.

End of the Reader Era

So if a company like Google, which has the infrastructure and a monetization machine in place to profit from the reader market, is throwing in the towel, what hope do others have? Most importantly, what if readers are not even necessary? Dave Winer wrote:

I didn’t think the mailbox approach to news was right. Who cares how many unread items there are. I like the river of news approach and I have a very fine set of rivers that keep me well supplied with news and podcasts.

After a roller coaster of emotions — shock, disappointment and anger — had run their gut wrenching course, I asked myself the question: has the world changed so much that we don’t really need something like Google Reader? Is it time to think about something else, something brand new? Something that is more in sync with a world where information flows through the social webs and is consumed on devices in our pockets?

Something like Prismatic, perhaps? Something that automagically surfaces what we want or what we should want to read? I know it is a painful thought to think at this moment, but technology brings change — and change we must. Chris puts it well when he wrote:

Reader will be an interesting footnote in tech history.

That’s neat and that’s enough for me; wasn’t it fun that we were able to test if it worked?

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