Blog Post

Google Reader lived on borrowed time: creator Chris Wetherell reflects

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.

1. fusion the earliest - home page

“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 (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?

2. fusion prototype - home page

53 Responses to “Google Reader lived on borrowed time: creator Chris Wetherell reflects”

  1. Jim Spofford

    Seems to me there are more than enough loyal Reader users that would be willing to pay real money to keep Reader alive and running at Google. Why the hell won’t they consider (or maybe they have?) that directly monetizing this product is an option worth pursuing?

  2. RRamalho

    “Rivers of information” just don’t work if you don’t like to lose news. The rivers approach is bad because you can lose information, that you wouldn’t if information was presented to you in an “outlook” way.

    That’s just sad, thank you Google.

  3. Alex Lee

    This is Google’s Apple Maps moment. Now is when Google lost the trust of many of its core evangelists, when Google made them feel like they’re the product. Who will entrust Google with their business workflow now, when it can be arbitrarily yanked without warning? At least when you have a local license, you can ensure your work will flow uninterrupted even if the vendor goes under. Goodwill has a monetary value, and I suspect Google has lost billions in one bad decision.

  4. Agent Provocateur

    Above you comment that his new venture is on Android. It is also on iOS.

    Since it is a paid subscription service, I imagine there are more iOS users given Android’s rep for being the home of the free app only crowd.

    https://avocado.io/

  5. Ryan Thomas

    Shifting your content into a reader took a learned user behavior.
    It required support, integration, and product knowledge to successfully convert a user.

    Once you did though…

    They read and visited more content more frequently.
    They committed to the platform becoming a primary part of their browsing routine.

    Take all the resources that have been wasted on Google Plus, and imagine that you liked on Facebook, shared on twitter, or subscribed using Google…

    You end up with a committed and organic fan base and a day one user experience that is miles ahead of what the G+ team accomplished.

    My name is Ryan Thomas and I’ll miss an amazing platform that made bookmarks and browsing a deeper and more meaning experience.

    @ryantylerthomas

  6. Peter Payne

    I am SO done with Google’s crappy initiatives. I will find a replacement, probably several because it will be balkanized and bastardized, but will never put myself in orbit around Google again. I will use Gmail and search but consider both of them to be temporary.

    And sorry but I follow certain sites, and DO NEED all the items to read. News articles about Japan I might want to write about, blog posts on anime feeds so I can see what series have “buzz” among American fans. Image blogs, twitter search feeds so I can see what people are saying about me and swoop in to help customers who are upset for some reason. Just because someone doesn’t do things the same way as me, doesn’t mean they are right and I am wrong.

    Balls, this is like losing email.

  7. Julian Francis-Lawton

    I completely disagree with Winer’s comment – maybe that works for him, but it doesn’t work for me – the mailbox approach does – it means I can track sporadic updates from lots of sites, without losing them in the noise of the ‘fast’ sites.

    The problem with Twitter or Facebook is precisely that – it’s too easy to miss something ‘important’ amongst the trivia.

    The annoying thing is that this is a service that ISPs should have been providing (much like Usenet, which was pretty much the reason I first got a modem).

    What I’d like to see? The feed reader app developers get together to specify an API for service providers, rather than tying themselves to a specific back end again.

    (What I don’t want – being forced into a browser-based model. For all the effort they put into Reader online, it was always second fiddle to NetNewsWire for me).

  8. Brian Mulvaney

    Google Reader is a filter for smart people. VERY smart people with outsized influence in every realm where ideas and information matter. Google just wrote them a collective ‘Dear John’ letter. It’s not Evil, it’s just biz. Or whatever a co-founder tells himself when he moves further from his founding impulse. The brand ramifications are fascinating.

    Marco Arment is correct that Google Reader suppressed innovation in feed reading. It wasn’t just desktop clients. The nascent ‘Enterprise RSS’ market failed to develop. A big tree is falling over. New shoots will bloom.

    Props to the team that championed Google Reader and to those who kept it alive.

    Great coverage, Om.

    p.s. What a great time for Yahoo to get back in the game with smart people.