Why Google killed off Google Reader: It was self-defense

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It’s not a huge surprise that Google is dropping Google Reader, the blog reader it operated since 2005. After all, they’d let it go for some time now (not that I’m complaining – it was after all, a free service, a fine product, and a boon for the overall ecosystem of blogging, podcasts and RSS).

The reality, though, is that Google operates at vast scale, and a niche consumer product like Reader just doesn’t move the needle. As crazy as it may sound, today even a billion-dollar business is simply a distraction to Google (unless, of course, it’s well on the way to becoming a five-billion-dollar business).

So all those who are signing petitions to Google  (and even one to The White House!) are missing the bigger point: that this is a victim of the company’s DNA, one that’s accelerated under Larry Page’s management. Some companies specialize in keeping the status quo, others specialize in moving forward. Google is the latter. If the company maintained every niche product with N thousand fans, even paying ones, it’d become the very bungling bureaucracy we love to hate. For a company with Google’s ethos and standing, any such dead-end, non-revenue-producing product that’s retained is holding others back, and prevents the company from moving forward and making true innovations instead of incremental improvements.

Open standards just a means to an end

While Google is giving up on Reader, I believe the company will still embrace subscriptions in a big way, just without RSS (by which I mean RSS, Atom, PubSubHubbub, etc.) Sure, they may continue to lean on RSS as part of their technical infrastructure – e.g. Googlebot will still be crawling external RSS feeds to identify fresh content – but users won’t see those three letters or the shiny feed icon that accompanies them.

To understand why Google’s walking away from RSS, look at Google’s relationship with open standards over the past decade. Google has experimented with various open technologies and found it difficult to win over Google-scale audiences and developers. The list of casualties would include OpenSocial (present in Orkut but not Plus), Activity Streams (present in Buzz, but not Plus, though certainly an inspiration), Social Graph API (no longer available) and RSS (not just Reader, but Feedburner is fading out and podcast app Listen was killed months ago).

Furthermore, Android has been a stonking success for the company, and while it may be open source, with a relatively open store policy, it’s not particularly based on open standards in the way that ChromeOS, WebOS, and now Firefox OS are.

So overall, Google’s lesson has been to lead with a compelling user experience first and then build an API from there, an API which may be based on open standards, but only if it’s a means to an end. Developers are much more attracted to a big market than a glorious proclamation of Open. It’s this philosophy that explains why Google has been so cautious with the Google Plus API.

Doubling down on media

Google isn’t giving up on blogs and media. Far from it. They already have Google News, Google Currents, and Google Now. And on Plus, they have vibrant product pages and communities. The Economist, Time, and ESPN all have over 2 million followers, for example.

This comes at a time when Facebook has been facing a backlash from journalists, with people saying that unless you’re paying for sponsored posts, it doesn’t show up in streams. Facebook’s recent design aims to fix this with a separate Subscriptions area, but as discussed on this week’s TWIT, it’s looking more like they experimented with subscriptions, that it wasn’t core to their business of connecting individuals, and now it’s off to the side.

So Google has an opportunity to win over media brands right now, and I believe they’ll be placing an emphasis on this in their own apps like Currents, as well as on Google Plus proper. In many respects, Currents is exactly what you’d expect from Google in 2013. It’s pretty, mobile-native, and “just works” without anyone having to learn the details of RSS.

Looking further ahead, Google has a vision heavily influenced by machine learning. The company has long known that the best search is the one you didn’t have to make, and this always-on attitude is now coming to fruition with Google Now. Google Now anticipates what users might be interested in at any time, and that includes the kind of articles people might presently be discovering on Google Plus.

Reader’s demise is understandably a sad moment for many, but I believe in time, it will be a positive for the overall ecosystem. Google simply wasn’t innovating on Reader, and as people shift over to services like Feedly or Newsblur (and new ones are popping up as I write), those companies will have extra incentive to innovate and extra resources to do so. Meanwhile, Google will continue to work on what it does best: boiling oceans and shooting for the moon.

Michael Mahemoff previously worked at Google and is founder of cloud podcasting service player.fm. Follow him on Twitter @mahemoff.

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