Thursday, March 14, 2013

What to do about Google terminating Reader?

So, at about 1 am this morning, I found out that Google is shutting down it's widely-used Reader application. I read four different takes on it (I think I saw it on BGR first) and only then headed off to Reddit. (It's all over the Internet now. Apparently, other writers recovered from the shock more quickly than I did.)
Ironically, I found out that Google was smothering Reader while using Reader. 
This is particularly frustrating to me. I use Reader more than any other single thing. Reader channels probably 95% of my Internet interaction. I use it for a few hours every day. I use it at my desk. I use it during commercial breaks on TV. I use it when my wife falls asleep on the TV couch and when I can't sleep. I use it while waiting on line at McDonald's. I use it on commuter trains and on long car trips. It's a constant companion, I've spent more time with it than any pet and nearly any human. If my phone is charged and I'm not doing something else, I'm reading articles. Between my two Google accounts, I subscribe to about 225 feeds and I've read more than 315,000 items since the summer of 2010. I had so many feeds that I moved my "business stuff", which I had organically/non-strategically added to my personal account, off of my personal account and onto my business account a couple of years ago as an organizational tactic.
I've been using RSS feeds for so long, I'm not sure when I started. Eight to ten years ago, before I started using RSS feeds, I used several folders of bookmarked websites and went through them manually. I'd have to look at the website and remember what I had read and what I had not. Some folders were checked daily, others were checked weekly or monthly. This became unwieldy, as lots of sites do not update regularly and I spent more time scanning for things to read than actually reading. At some point, I made a strategic decision to stop reading web sites that had no RSS feed even thought they often had valuable content. (I'm looking at you, Storage Review.)
To read feeds, I first used Akregator when I used KDE/Linux for my main rig. After moving away from Linux, for a short time I tried Windows fat clients. That stopped when I wasn't allowed to plug my laptop into my client's corporate networks. I needed something I could access with a large number of machines and did not require an install, so that I could read during lunch and on breaks. Obviously, that called for a web site. I tried iGoogle and Bloglines. Neither never really clicked with me and I gave them up when I moved to Google Reader. I never even looked back. When I started using smartphones, the Reader web site was among the first that I bookmarked. When I moved to Android from S60, the Reader app was one of the first apps I installed.
This is a great opportunity for Yahoo, Bing, BlogLines and any other vendor. (Microsoft has kilotons of programming talent and megatons of infrastructure. They should be able to write and put up a replacement for Reader in a few weeks. They'd probably make the mistake of somehow making it Windows 8-only.) Google is making a mistake by abandoning a piece of the chess board. They were the de facto standard. Little "Add this to Google Reader" buttons are all over the Internet. They will be disappearing. Now someone else is going to get those users and those eyeballs. The upside is that we might get some innovation in the RSS space. First, we will simply have to replace what we are loosing.
I presume that this is somehow related to Google's push to remake themselves as "Google Plus". Reader was just about the only reason I ever posted anything to G+. When I realized it was easier to share things via email than G+ and there was no way to monetize things I sent to G+, I stopped posting to G+. Now I will have absolutely no reason to go anywhere near G+. 
Why kill Reader when G+ is a ghost town? Surely, Reader can't consume very much in the way of resources. Why not kill Orkut? If Google is "tightening up" it's offerings, why do I see so much hype around driverless cars and those X Ray glasses? Where is the revenue generation for those services? They are clearly spending tens of millions of dollars (or more) on these ever-forthcoming products. Does Google expect me to stare at ads while I walk down the street while wearing their glasses or drive down the road with their cameras on the top of my car? Does Google expect everyone to act as roaming data collectors for their databases?
In the post announcing the shutdown of Reader, Google made reference to the usage of Reader dropping. Every change they made to Reader in the last three years made the service worse, not better. If usage has dropped, Google has only themselves to blame. 
It's as if Microsoft and Google have entered into a contest to see who can make the biggest mistakes.
I'm often asked if anyone can rely on SaaS. Not if it is a free service, clearly. If such a popular service is dropped with little or no warning, less popular services must be even more prone to evaporation. Things are likely to get worse as the behemoths try to put up walls around their gardens.
(As a semi-related side note, when did Reader stop supporting OPML export? They support OPML import and OPML is the Lingua Franca of RSS aggregators. Google likes to brag about letting you take your data with you, but any data professional will know that the format of the data is almost as important as the data itself. If you can't import your data into another system, it's useless until you write a conversion tool. The careers of many programmers have been built on writing such tools. The vast majority of Reader users will not be able to write such a tool and they will have to rely on the kindness of strangers. I suspect that many of them will migrate their feeds manually, with many feeds being left behind and many blogs seeing a drop in pageviews.)
I am reminded of the fiasco from serveral years ago. That service seemed to come from nowhere and was wildly popular for a time. Yahoo bought it, screwed it up, and I (and many, many others) stopped using it. When Yahoo said that they were going to shut down, I migrated my data into Evernote and never looked back. Looking at it now, it seems that somehow got out from under Yahoo and is/was trying to rebuild what they had. Of course, they can't. There are elements of the Digg implosion in here, too. They had something good, they felt compelled to change it, their users found the changes were for the worse and they left. Surely, the Googlers are familiar with and Digg.
Looking at iGoogle now, I see that it is also marked for death and has already been eviscerated, so I won't be going back to that. I was surprised to find that Bloglines is still around. I've already moved a few feeds into BlogLines, but they don't seem to have any mobile app and I am still looking at this as an experiment. I may wind up with a few different solutions, each picked to follow certain types of feeds or to segregate "personal stuff" from "business stuff". For example, Shorpy's, a site for (large) historical photos, is better viewed on a desktop. CraigsList feeds often require a quick response, and I'd like to keep them on my phone.
My first steps towards migration are to cut down on the number of feeds I do have and to start trying other services. This morning, I tossed about 40% of my personal subscriptions. (Looking at CraigsList just makes me want to buy someone's old gear, anyway.) I am down to 31 subscriptions, from about 50. I'm not going to touch my 175+ "business" feeds yet. I'm starting by moving things to my re-invigorated Bloglines account that I don't need to read every day or really need to be viewed on a larger screen, like my The Big Picture and Shorpy's feeds. 



Russ said...

I couldn't agree more. I may move back to a windows or linux client. I follow 87 feeds closely, and many more casually. The disappearance of OPML export is not cool.

Darin said...

I am experimenting with Bloglines and Feedly. Both seem to be having issues this morning. I expect that everyone, having read about the situation over the weekend, returned to work on Monday and started working towards a migration.

BJ said...

I feel your pain over Reader's demise, and agree with you about other projects that could have been dropped instead. Still a bit panicky about losing iGoogle, though there are a few alternatives available there, as well. I have to disagree with you on G+, though. For people who want to connect, teach, learn, and share with others having the same interests, it's a pretty engaging tool. My concern is the ever-increasing need to bundle and connect everything we do online into a single data-accumulating account (for the purpose of eventually monetizing our personal information). Feedly has been overwhelmed by the mass exodus - they'll hopefully shore up their systems soon to handle the onslaught. It should be interesting to see who else jumps in to fill the void.

Darin said...

In what ways is G+ is superior to FB or Twitter?

My personal history with G+ is as follows:
When G+ first started and when Reader replaced the old sharing features with G+, I made attempts to actively use it. There wasn't much going on, and what was going on was duplicated in one or two other of the feeds that I consume. (Podcasts being a chief culprit.) I found that G+ kept interrupting my workflow/grabbing my attention for things that were just not worth the effort. Anytime anyone posted any little thing, I get an alert in the Google toolbar. Since I'm logged into Google all of the time, it's difficult to avoid the alerts. With Twitter or LinkedIn, I can minimize a window or log out and I won't see alerts.

I went back to sharing Reader items via email and started hanging around twitter more than I had been. This is probably exactly what Google didn't want me to do.

Maybe I simply do not have the mental bandwidth to try to find a way to incorporate an entirely new social network (two networks, actually, since I've got separate work and personal accounts) if I can't see a clear & immediate path to a benefit. I do have the weird tingling at the back of my neck that tells me that Google will eventually try to move users from Blogger to G+. At that point, it might make more sense for me to switch, or I might hop to Wordpress.

BJ said...

I might be the wrong person to ask about what makes G+ better than FB. To me, FB was great for re-connecting with lost friends, distant relations, etc. Once that's done, it seems to be a time-waster, for the most part, and don't get me started on their privacy issues and unwanted changes. I consider G+ to be geared more for those who want to share more "useful" information, while FB is more geared toward chatter (one might say the same about Twitter). I'm not at all interested in the minute-by-minute details of my "friends'" days. Don't really care what they had for lunch, or where they're headed for dinner. G+ Circles are a great feature (which is why FB copied the concept).

For some reason, I feel like FB makes me a little dumber each time I use it, but that could just be due to my list of FB friends, I suppose. I find that G+ feeds are pretty easy to control, overall. I can't speak to your issue with alerts, but I can definitely see how constant alerts would be an annoyance.

My primary use for G+ at the moment is connecting with people who share my interest in photography. I also use more than one G+ account, which is going to become problematic at some point, as they aggregate account functionality more and more.