Goodbye Reader

I’ve used Google reader for a long time. Pretty much as long as it’s existed, in fact. I got tired of doing the same circuit on the web, visiting all my friends’ blogs, all the tech blogs, and all that. I got tired of their constantly-changing interfaces and oddly-placed navigation.

I wanted to take the hassle and variability out of my web reading experience. RSS and Reader did that.

Reader was not always fantastic. In fact, at the beginning, it was fairly ugly and feature-light. But it did what it advertised and it did it without requiring a desktop app.

This is something often overlooked. I think Google Reader is responsible for introducing a variety of people to the idea that we don’t need a desktop app for everything anymore.

That aside, as it accrued features, Google Reader also became a bit prettier, though it was never (let’s be honest here) that great to look at. What it did better than any other competing reader was sharing. You had friends, you shared articles or blog posts with them, and they could see what you shared. Even better, the sharing was done by (what else?) RSS. So you could pull out your personal shares via RSS and do… well, whatever you wanted. It wasn’t the perfect data interchange, but it worked. You could take your shared items and post them to a blog (which I did) or post them to Twitter or Facebook or really, whatever you wanted. You could even have individual contributors to a blog posting shared items for a sort of “best of the web” type thing. You could pipe that RSS feed into a bookmark service like Delicious. And because Reader used Google’s servers instead of pulling directly from the sources, Reader was a great way for a lot of people to get around censorship in places like Iran and Syria. There’s a list as long as my arm of stuff you could do with the data that flowed in and out of Google Reader on an intradaily basis.

Now, Google never made it really easy to get that data out. It was an obscure setting obviously intended only for power users. But let’s face it, lots of people who use Reader are power users. Sort of the backbone of Google, the people who got Google started and popular in the first place. The fact that Google no longer caters to or seems to need power users is not something lost on us.

First came Wave, then Buzz, now Google+. With Wave they re-invented email, but in a clumsy, heavy, not-very-user-friendly way (here’s a great thing about email: It’s instantly and completely understandable from an interface perspective). Buzz re-invented Twitter, also in a clumsy and heavy way, with bonus privacy invasions. When both of those things failed, Google decided to just go ahead and clone Facebook, but also in a clumsy, heavy sort of way.

At first we didn’t understand what Google+ was about. We didn’t understand what it was meant to do, I don’t think. Maybe a few people did, the visionaries who understood Google’s plan with Google+. They were going to make Google+ the backbone of the Googleverse.

There’s a lot to be said about that. There’s no particular reason that the backbone of Google had to be a social networking layer. There’s no reason that Local results are there now. There’s no reason that Hangouts have to be tied into that, or sharing of Google Docs, or Picassa, or any of that stuff. It did need to be unified, but it did not need to be unified as Google+.

This is the moment that Google stopped being the Google we knew and became the Google we know. I know, this sort of demarcation is essentially me creating a narrative that may not fit the actual transition time. Or maybe Google is fundamentally the same but my perspective on the company has changed. Maybe it’s all optics. I don’t know.

But this is what it feels like. It feels like Google went from deeply believing in open formats, open social, sharing between platforms, and data interchange to a company embracing an idea of “sharing” that another company (i.e. Facebook or someone in that space) had created. This idea of sharing is primarily sharing INTO but not OUT OF a service. So for instance when you search on Google you have the option to share into Google+ but nowhere else. If you hit a +1 somewhere, you share into Google+ and nowhere else.

As more and more Google services got folded into the Google+ sharing model, it wasn’t long (surprisingly, as Reader wasn’t exactly a well-maintained product) before Reader could only share into Google+ as well. Suddenly instead of a share button, we had a +1 button. The share functionality had been completely removed.

All that functionality that was enabled by Google Reader sharing items via RSS was suddenly… gone. And what about using Google+ to accomplish this instead? Was there a way to share out of Google+ in a reliable, easy way?

Nope. Google+ has no RSS, and although you can get limited access to your shares via an extremely limiting API, this was a feature clearly designed for a select few developers. The subset of people able to share out of Google Reader suddenly shrank to almost zero.

This was called the Shareocalypse. For good reason. Google took a perfectly good sharing service and dismantled it overnight. It wasn’t malicious, perhaps, but it was certainly pointed. It was pointed directly at Google+. The executives in charge of Google+ looked at that torrent of shared items and wanted it. They wanted it dumped into Google+.

It turns out that this is not what the users wanted. Clearly sharing to Google+ was far inferior and most people simply stopped sharing. I know most or all of my friends did. So what Google actually did was take that torrent of shares and turn them into a trickle. Great job, guys!

And then, when the trickle of shares was finally small enough, they decided to turn Reader off altogether. After all, it wasn’t doing what they wanted it to do, which is what they want everything to do now: Feed into Google+, make Google+ full of content and (hopefully) therefore eyeballs, give it that sharing bump.

See, the people who ran Reader GOT sharing. They understood it. It wasn’t quite simple enough maybe, but the concept was there: Let me share what I want to share where I want to share it. If I want to pipe it into my blog, fine. If I want to pipe it into my Facebook, by all means.

I don’t hold out a lot of hope that Google+ will ever share this way. Google is starting to become more and more jealous of its own data. Not just the secret backroom server stuff that they’ve always been secretive and paranoid about, but the actual public facing stuff, the stuff that goes in and out of its web services. I can guarantee you that if Wave had been a success, it would be forked, no longer open-source, and somehow connecting into Google+.

This is the future of Google, by the way. They looked at Facebook swallowing more and more of the open internet and enclosing it into Facebook’s walled garden… and they were jealous. They wanted that. They took a look at their services and realised… look at all this stuff we have! All these services that don’t connect together in any real way! And they decided to connect them together and co-incidentally make the connection look and act like Facebook.

The only thing left to do is to plug all those darn holes. All those places like Reader where the data is leaking out. So if we take a look at all of Google’s services, we see a lot of standard-based data interchanges. For instance Google Talk uses Jabber or can at least talk to Jabber servers. I will bet you $1000 that when Google’s new Babble service (or whatever else they call it) arrives, it will not do these things. They’ll have their own thing. They’ll say it’s because no-one was using it, they’ll say that they’re putting more wood behind fewer arrows, or whatever they need to say, but in reality it will be about plugging that leak.

This is why I think Google has changed. It was always secretive and paranoid with a layer of sunshine and smiles on top of that (look at the platforms and services Google has literally invented to keep Search everywhere). But recently all the stuff that used to buy them goodwill in the tech community has started to fade away. Standards compliance… open source… all that jazz. Watch and see.

You have to remember that back in the day, Microsoft had a lot of goodwill in the tech community, too. Apple, the same. Sun, the same. But then they changed or sold out or ripped off the mask to reveal their true personalities. And Google’s true personality is a paranoid data hoarder. They used to put a layer of treats and candy on top of it (literally in the naming of Android releases), and they still do, but that paranoid data hoarder is starting to show through.

If you’re wondering why so many people seem so upset about Reader closing down, it’s probably not just because a nice product has unexpectedly found its end. It’s because Google is starting to cause cognitive dissonance. It’s not the company you used to love. It’s a different company now.

Which should maybe give you some pause when the next tech darling come along and wants you to pledge your life and data to it.