Google Reader turned into a zombie a long time ago and it’s good that Google finally killed it. For years, Google Reader has been sitting on Google’s servers without any appreciable updates. Sure, it got a bit of a facelift in 2011, but it only lost functionality since Google decided to rip out its social features in an effort to drive people to Google+. Its core features hadn’t changed for years, its overall design wasn’t really up to snuff anymore and even after eight years on the market, it would still often take hours before some feeds finally updated.
I can’t help but think that a lot of the current outpouring of support for Google Reader is more about nostalgia than anything else. A couple of years ago, ‘shares’ on Google Reader were the equivalent of today’s Facebook Likes and Twitter retweets. It was the hot new way to measure how popular a story was, and a bunch of services ranked stories accordingly. Displaying the number of subscribers to your RSS feed was a point of pride for bloggers. But even then, Google Reader was mostly a tool for information junkies. It never caught on with mainstream users who were barely able to figure out how to subscribe to a feed. As Google Reader inventor Chris Wetherell noted in a post bemoaning the lack of updates to the service in 2011, however, that “market totally exists and is weirdly under-served (and is possibly affluent).”
Google – especially under the leadership of Larry Page – simply decided that going after small markets wasn’t in its best interest, so Reader was left to die. For mainstream users, Flipboard, Zite, Pulse and all the other news-reading apps now represent a far superior solution (and they are all mobile-first, while Google Reader never got a chance to do something innovative on mobile at all).
And that’s okay. The total dominance of Google Reader meant that nobody else was really trying to improve these inbox-like RSS-based tools that we information junkies love so much because they give us a relatively unfiltered view of what’s happening.
Newsblur, a Y Combinator-backed company, probably got the closest to replicating the old Google Reader when it launched last year (including the “share” feature and comments), but it barely reached a thousand paying users until the Reader announcement last week (now it has almost 3,500 paying users over 11,500 who signed up for a free account). The pull and comfort of using Google Reader was just too strong, even with projects like the Old Reader virtually replicating the Google Reader experience (it would be interesting to see how many new users Google Reader got in the last few years, by the way).
Now that Reader is on its deathbed, we are also suddenly seeing a renaissance in services that want to provide information junkies with better tools than just scanning Twitter feeds. Unlike Google Reader, Newsblur emphasizes speed and is under active development. Feedly, which was always popular but never quite had a breakthrough, offers a far more appealing visual experience than Reader. Even Digg is trying to get in on the action.
When Google launched Reader, it essentially killed the market for RSS readers. Now that it’s gone, maybe we’ll finally see some innovation in this space again (especially once we get past this slightly awkward phase of just trying to replicate Reader). Who knows, the way things are going, we’ll be talking about PubSubHubbub again in no time.
Chris Wetherell is a former Googler who created the Google Reader product. He left to work on his own project as VP of Technology at Thing Labs, makers of Brizzly, which sold to AOL in 2010. He is currently founder and CEO of Avocado.