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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 (s goog) 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 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 (s fb) 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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53 Responses to “Google Reader lived on borrowed time: creator Chris Wetherell reflects”

  1. st4rdog

    Google are on the downward slope of irrelevance. The same one Yahoo was on long ago.

    I find the closure of iGoogle especially hilarious. They had a dashboard with developer apps (widgets), and then abandoned it 6+ years ago, but if you have just a few widgets on your Android home screen, you’re essentially using a not-as-good, more limited, iGoogle.

    iGoogle was ahead of its time. Imagine they had actually put work into it. It could have been “Google Now” or a Chrome Webstore type thing by now, but 3/4 years earlier.

    The real reason nobody uses these services is because they don’t know they exist, or in Reader’s case, what RSS even is. They don’t realise how useful they would be.

    “Popularity” is not a good judge of how good or useful a product is. If we go by popularity, Gangnam Style is the best song ever.

  2. I reckon there’ll be even better replacements for google reader as a feed reader or even as a service for client apps, but what will never be back is the excellent “search” feature: it’s google search in your favorite sites (i have 374 subscriptions!), and I NEED IT! So many times i forgot to “star” a precious article, but found it again even after days or weeks just using the search input.
    So long, you’ll be deeply missed.

  3. rabensam

    Dave Winer in that quote demonstrates the most widespread fallacy of computer developer thinking: “I personally didn’t use this feature, therefore there is no reason for anyone else to use it, and anyone who did use it was DOING IT WRONG.” An important stage of human developmental psychology is the recognition that other people are not me, but are in fact separate entities who have needs and emotions that are not my own.

  4. Om, other social protocols/mechanisms push content, but in a very intrusive manner. Any deep work one needs to accomplish, is being constantly hammered by interruptions. work output and quality suffer research shows. RSS readers, allow one to subscribe to favorites and read when temporally appropriate. Remember when Email used to be a substitute for live/phone, where the user could pick up emails later, and respond more at leisure. Now IM, SMS/push notifications, mobile, email, phone, UC, all compete for attention, all the time, a mash-up of undisciplined excess.

    Anecdotes: I note scoble barely blogs these days,
    my favorite bloggers, still produce much higher quality content.

    I like to visualize a ‘content curation’ quality axis or horizon. Much of today’s content is duplicate, trivial, low quality, noise, A blogger like yourself, invests in what they write, their curated content is of much higher quality and more valuable. Doc Searls VRM concept dovetails with this notion, that users, will begin to wrest control from ‘providers’ on what, when and how they see what the ‘end user’ desires.

    RSS readers are/were an important strategic asset here.. trailblazing, push but enabling a user defined pull. it seems like we need new tools, new UC capabilities, that permit deep work, that permit true personalization and filter out ‘the noise’. I’ll continue use RSS until i find/develop a more integrated tool.

    thank you Chris Wetherell, ‘the creator’ your work has saved me many hours!

  5. Shawn Smith

    My first thought was that someone should buy Google Reader to keep it alive – the story of Yahoo and Delicious, to point to a recent example.

    On the other hand, it shouldn’t be necessary for Google Reader to exist, and it was a mistake for the likes of Reeder and Mr. Reader to depend on it. They should have built themselves as alternatives to Google Reader, not as clients for it. Their integrations with Google Reader should have been nothing more than a way to transfer your subscriptions from one to the other. I can export all my feeds from Google Reader as an OPML file, and importing this is all I should need to get up and running with Reeder, Mr. Reader, etc.

    The thing Google Reader offers that seems most difficult for any other product to replicate and perhaps makes Google Reader irreplaceable is the ability to search the archives of all your feeds.

  6. Lucinda DeVries

    Let me get this straight…Google can’t make money off of Reader and so they are shutting it down? Ultimately, that is what they are saying. I love Reader and use it everyday as many of you do. It’s a random change, just like FaceBook. Whatever happened to consumer surveys before deciding to make business moves like this?

  7. Jeremy Pepper

    Nice read Om, and an interesting bit that all the data was there (before Big Data became so buzz worthy) but no one did anything with it.

    During the height of the RSS reader, I really wanted to see Pointcast come back as a consumer reader, one that non-techies could glom onto like they had in the past. Pitched it to someone I knew at Idealab, but nothing happened.

  8. Clinton Wu

    Sounds eerily similar to iGoogle’s trajectory. Ugly stepchild without any support gains popularity among a rabid set of users then gets sunset because it never truly fit in.

    I think we’re in a transition period between Reader and what you suggest happens automagically. We’re just not there yet because algorithms still don’t have enough information about our specific context to be able to connect the dots. Maybe when google’s glasses can tell our state of mind/mood through a sensor node on our temple then we’ll be closer.

  9. Neil Martinez

    How ironic that there are so many typos in this column on Google “Reader” that the article is actually hard to read. Was that intentional?

    • Mark

      I would say it isn’t that simple – Facebook means a lot more to a lot many more people around the web versus Google Reader. But that still doesn’t take away the sting of losing the Reader.

  10. heenan73

    Google’s excuse: “as a company we are pouring all of our energy into fewer products”, is simply tosh. The time and money they invested in Reader (and iGoogle) was miniscule after the initial development, and in the scale of such things, it hardly registered.

    The simple truth is that Google are ever more desperate to force all their users into G+.

    This is understandable, and their right – but the assumption that we ALL want social, ALL the time, is simply wrong.

    It is impossible to configure G+ as a funtional news aggregator; the news is simply buried in a sea of comment, making it ever harder to get hard facts, rather than opinion and conjecture.

    Google’s constant claim to believe in communication only applies as far as chitter-chatter.

    It’s another sad day for me, after iGoogle going, but it’s a sadder day for Google who seemed determined to reduce themselves to a Facsimile Facebook.

  11. I really don’t understand the reasoning behind this. Google is a public company, and if this is a cost reasoning (i.e., too expensive for what it brings), that makes sense but Google is not saying anything like that — suggesting it just doesn’t fit some box of requirements that their executives want. Which is stupid.

    if they think this will get their google+ numbers up, forget it. I’m more likely to stop using google products all together. This was the only 1 I actually would miss (I can replace gmail and google drive very easily), and sure enough, they axe it without any real reason given to their customers.

    • Kevin

      I am sure we can stop using their products but the fact is that we should be careful in the future of betting too much on one company well knowing how motivations change all the time. Anyway good luck in your quest for a replacement reader.

  12. Christian Fuchs

    I use Google Reader everyday. Or better said the API.

    I use the Reeder App and since a few weeks the app that finally allows me to bring an “Read Later” App, together with an ebook reader and a RSS reader, all with highlight and annotations.
    RSS feeds are much too valuable to kill it. Google should innovate on it, not kill that stuff. There is still a lot to innovate in the area of digital reading see for example dotdotdot .

    • I disagree. I think it’s the beginning of the end for RSS. Why should sites maintain RSS feeds if the reader application with the largest number of users no longer exists? I used to follow certain Twitter accounts using RSS in Google Reader until Twitter cut off RSS except for searches (not sure how long that will last).

      For fans of Google Reader like me and you, the web will seem like it has regressed. Twitter is simply not a viable substitute even if you create an account solely to follow publishers because of the poor search integration, the lack of stars you can quickly tap (favorites are not as fluid), and the lack of labels (again its organizational tools are not as good). If Twitter can’t nail this stuff how will these startups that Marco talks about? If Marco really thought a viable market existed, he would build an RSS reader himself (perhaps within Instapaper). I doubt we will see anything like that from him.

      • I should add that I don’t like using free products precisely for this reason. However, our company pays for Google Apps. I wish Google would consider continung to support Google Reader for its paying Google Apps customers. Then at least the company could justify spending just enough on it to make sure it remains up and running. No new features needed. With fewer users, all of them paying, it wouldn’t require as many servers, etc.

  13. Prismatic and all other curated „intelligent“ services are abysmal. RSS allows me to actively choose, what and when I do want to read. If I had to rely on Prismatic & Co. I’d long since given up on finding any relevant content.

  14. dhlavaty

    Google Reader is irreplaceable, it is not only about reading RSS. That
    is the easy part. It is about going back in time and accessing all
    past feeds in an organized way (it is difficult to rebuilt that from
    crawling and web scraping). If you add a blog now you can read
    articles that are not present in the current feed.

    In an increasingly busy world, many of us use Google Reader to keep
    track of the latest news and developments, whether for personal or
    professional purposes.

  15. What we do need is something faster than RSS but that’s no reason to kill Reader while there is nothing better.
    This is bad not just for the user but for most sites and many sites need to do a better job at providing an easy way to list articles in chronological order.
    If there is nothing good enough to replace Reader and we end up consuming less content Google’s own revenue might suffer
    Google just ruined the internet for so many today ,wish Bing was decent (it’s not ,i use it often just to see if it gets better) so we can at least have a way to protest.

  16. I use Google reader more than I use google for search or even my GMail.
    The fact they wernt trying to push paid content meant the information was real, and unfiltered. You can subscribe ANY feed, from any site that you want, and you dont HAVE to have twitter or Facebook.
    Most of the good reader clients though allow frictionless sharing. If I see something I like or wnat to comment on, I often just share it in Reeder to facebook, so people I care about swill see the post, and comment, rather than just the readers of comments on that post on the site I linked from.
    Reader mean I can plough through new content from about 100 sites in just the time it takes me to have breakfast. The fact that I can filter out stuff I have read on any of my devices is critical.

    How can Google not work out how to sell data based on the sites I link to and posts I read? Maybe the nature of the RSS feeds filtered out ads kept revinue to a minimum. 8(

  17. The implications of the decision must go well beyond what they realise – I don’t rely on Google Reader but I do rely on RSS, and if Google will no longer support RSS generally I will be forced you use other search engines.
    Social sharing has its uses, but it’s output is always other people’s choice. RSS output is sources chosen by me – different and complementary.
    RSS opens up the web so are Google in favour of slamming their doors in our faces. Thanks and goodbye Google, you idiots.

  18. Melanie

    “Who cares how many unread items there are.” – BLOG READERS DO. Because unlike news sources and cobbled together items like gawker, buzzfeed, et al… a personal blog, written by one person as a story of their lives needs to be read, in order usually. If I am reading a personal journey and then miss a big chunk, I’ll have no idea how they got there.. .

    I also use Reader to keep me updated on specific searches on craigslist…rare items that hardly ever are listed. So yes, I need to see EVERY item – because if I miss this one, the next one might not show up for a year or two.

    There are many other uses for an RSS reader than just “news items”. Think outside the box, Google!

  19. Mark DeKruyter

    I think Google Reader is a great product I use every day……..1 of Google’s 3 or 4 BEST programs……and that this was a crappy move by Google….and a wrong move. Google spends millions of wasted dollars on pet projects, then kills one of their best products on a whim…………..they act like children sometimes………..