On Monday, Google will turn off Google Reader, a product that allowed users to read RSS feeds, a way to get information quickly from multiple sites, because the company claims that it wasn’t good enough. When the announcement came out, a number of companies large and small announced replacement for the site, hoping to lure the heavy information users who use these tools to their side.
While the death of the most popular RSS reader on the internet could have been seen as something that would represent a grave danger for RSS as a standard, for openness as a concept, and for heavy news consumption, the inverse has been true, as it only solidified RSS’ position in the world as the format for news delivery. Reader was a good product but one can hardly call it a great product and its demise will help rectify some imbalances it created in the market. To get a sense as to how Google killing Google Reader can be seen as the best thing to happen to RSS one needs to look back.
RSS, as an idea, was radical, bringing the decentralization of the internet and web sites to the news consumption model. Blogs were early adopters of the format, which provides a quick way to deliver all published stories on a site to a set of subscribers. Think of it as email newsletters without having to provide any information to the site (not even your email). So its main features are that the reader decides what to subscribe and unsubscribe to and the publisher is never given any identifying information about the reader: total anonymity and personalization in news consumption, bringing forward the concept of a personal newspaper to life.
Today, there are millions of RSS feeds (for example, you can consume this story in one if you subscribe) coming from publishers large and small. But because it does not provide as much information as a web page or an email subscription does, it is not a format that has been marketed very heavily. So while today’s generation mostly consumes news through shared links on Twitter or Facebook, or via customized experiences like Flipboard, RSS has mostly been the domain of heavy information users and technologists.
In 2005, in an attempt to capitalize on the early success of RSS, Google introduced Reader. The entry of a free product from Google upended the market and many independent players died, leading to Google Reader becoming the most popular platform for reading news feeds. In 2007, Google Reader introduced an API that increased the company’s power in the RSS ecosystem as many of the smaller feed readers started leveraging Google’s backend instead of developing their own.
The net result was that by early 2013, Google has essentially manage to defeat the decentralized nature of RSS by setting itself up as a the central authority on RSS feeds, and developing what could have been an essential point of control over news delivery. This could be seen as bad for the RSS ecosystem as Google would have had the power to do and track RSS feeds as it saw fit. Most RSS readers had either died out or used Google Reader as their backend. At the same time, a new crop of software took RSS feeds and presented them in magazine-like layouts on mobile devices. So RSS became primarily a back-end technology with only few customers (on a relative basis) actually knowing what it was.
Fortunately, understanding that it had centralized a large part of the RSS ecosystem did not seem to be something that was clear in the management ranks of Google. In an effort to cut back on projects, Google decided to sunset Google Reader, a move that immediately reinvigorated the RSS ecosystem. Companies large an small rushed to the market with replacements. As a result, what had once been a choke point for RSS consumption has once again broken apart with no less than 5 different companies (Feedly, Newsblur, AOL reader, Feedbin, Bazqux) providing and API for end client to synchronize with. This means that it is unlikely that a single company will have the same kind of stranglehold Google once had over RSS.
It also means that with new diversity in the ecosystem, each individual player will have to find ways to differentiate itself from the competition. For the last few years, RSS has suffered from a lack of attention. While Facebook and Twitter simplified link sharing and publishing and got users accustomed to the concept of a content firehose, RSS quietly continued running in the background, with little innovation from Google.
But now that Google Reader is dead, a new world awaits. The initial functionality all the new newsreaders are bringing to the market may match that of Google reader at its peak but we are starting to see the emergence of new concepts. For example, Feedly provides a more graphically rich experience; or Newsblur provides a learning system that will bubble up information more interesting to you; or Digg throws in tighter integration with social networks. All told, the new crop of newsreaders are treating RSS not just as a way to pass news around but also as the source for new creativity and potentially new features and new business models.
So as Google reader passes on, let us not cry for the newsreader of the past. Let’s rejoice at Google letting RSS go free again and let’s all hope that our industry will not make the same mistake of centralizing a technology that was initially created as a decentralized one.