Focusing On The Google Reader Shutdown

Last week Google announced the shutdown of Google Reader as part of its company wide bid to “focus” on “fewer products.”

“We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go,” wrote the company in a blog post. comScore estimates that as many as 665,000 different people used the mobile app in recent months, according to the Financial Times. The product appears to have been well-loved among users, with a monthly active user base estimated to be around one million according to a competitor.

Given the relatively small impact a Google Reader sunsetting could have on the company’s billion dollar operating expenses, a highly visible shutdown like that of Google Reader seems to be at least in part to send a message (among the vocal blog readers seem to be the bloggers themselves). The message is that Google is not just focusing on fewer products, but focusing on the things that most people are going to use. And if that’s the new standard by which things will be measured by Google, expect more changes to come as Google’s executive leadership continues to change.

“Powering down” Google Reader effective July 1 was a tough decision and the arguably the biggest property execs have felled since the November 2011 shutdown of Google Wave (in addition to closures, several products have been folded together). The move is reminiscent of Yahoo’s 2010 shutdown of beloved bookmarking service Delicious, and the public response seems to be the same as then, too: given strong user loyalty and the mature stage of product development there might have been more peripheral ways to other ways for the Internet giant to rationalize its operational belt, such as a sale or targeting more peripheral products.

Although the shutdown of Google Reader would seem to message new focus for the Internet advertising company, it’s in fact the same focus from elsewhere being mainstreamed into the fold. Google started to leave RSS discovery out of Chrome years ago, opting instead to make it a 3rd party feature for which you’d need to use a plugin. A Chrome developer explained at the time the decision was “based on our philosophy of trying to limit ourselves to adding only the UI features that a vast majority of users need.”

(In fact, Chrome is not the only browser maker to come to have doubts over the continued role of RSS. Firefox independently came to similar conclusions, apparently discovering that, according to heatmap data, only 9.1% of beginning to advanced users interacted with the RSS button.)

So why shutdown Google Reader now? Last week Android chief Andy Rubin abdicated in favor of “VP of Chrome and Apps” Sundar Pichai. Neither change was likely to have been made precipitously.

As excellently reported the Wall Street Journal’s Amir Efrati:

Mr. Rubin has a reputation as a fierce competitor who sometimes clashed with others regarding the Google services that would appear on Android, said people familiar with the matter.

… That sometimes led to conflicts with other Google units that tried to get their products to be preinstalled on Android devices or be more tightly integrated with the software, these people said.

Mr. Pichai is likely to be more accommodating and willing to integrate Android with more Google services, these people said.

Some people familiar with Google have said the Android and Chrome units had a difficult time working together to bring the Chrome Web browser to Android devices in 2012. It replaced a Web browser that the Android team had built.

According to this reporting, it appears Pichai is admired for his ability to amicably work out difficult partnerships both within and outside of Google, a challenge he’ll face amid pressure from without over growing Samsung power and from within over maintaining Rubin’s “focus” on finding the right amount of Google services to pitch to Android users. Will Pichai be able to make the tough decisions when, for example, it comes time to reconciling the differences between Google TV, Chrome OS and Android?

In the meantime, readers’ loss of Google Reader is a gain for its competitors. Feedly, a service that offers a magazine-like experience atop feeds, is reported to have seen by a half-million users. Newblur, which charges $24 per year for a premium account, has seen more than 3,000 such accounts purchased in the past day alone.

When Yahoo sunset Delicious in 2011, paid bookmarking service Pinboard saw at peak 700 signups an hour.

Newsblur founder Samuel Clay welcomes the exodus of Google Reader’s faithful. The developer and sole operator says his company gives users the option to pay 50% more by choice and that, because “the more users I have, the more capacity I can have,” some “15% of those who go premium are paying the $36 per year.”

“This is better than my Delicious moment,” says Clay. “The number of people who use Delicious is eclipsed by the number of people who read blogs.”

For Clay, as likely for others, Google’s “focus” away from Google Reader is a bittersweet victory. What happens when David challenges an Internet Goliath and that giant decides not to fight? Clay believes a challenge will be making sure the audience sticks around: “I’m competing against the back button,” he says.

And as for the rest of competition, fortunately for Clay there are plenty of giants to take on — namely “the stream” he says, “this algorithmic stream of content” from Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and others.