Now, you might not know what Google Reader is. Although it has been around since 2005, it isn't a household name in the way that other Google services like Google Maps or Gmail (or even Google+) have become. Its name sounds like it might be something to do with ebooks. And, unless you use RSS, you probably don't really know what RSS means. (And even if you do, you might not really understand how it works.) RSS is basically a way for a website to provide a feed of data from their sites, which can then be read and processed by machines. So, I can put feeds from my favourite blogs and websites into a folder, and check them all at once to see what new articles they have posted.
So… Google announced that Reader is being shuttered, and thousands of RSS users cried out in terror... And dozens of bloggers quickly wrote up their 'Great alternatives to Google Reader' posts.
The problem is, I don't think there are *any* 'great alternatives' to Google Reader out there. Because if there were, then the fact that it was shutting down wouldn't be such an issue. (It's been pretty clear to anyone watching Reader closely over the last few years that it has been living on borrowed time.) I'm not saying that there aren't any good RSS readers out there - I'm sure that there are. But to be a 'great alternative' to Google Reader, they need to tick a few boxes;
- Cloud based - I don't want to wait to download hundreds of feeds after I open an app until I can see the latest news. And I want to be able to check whats new on my phone or iPad, and then move over to my laptop to collect related links into blog posts etc. (I'm sure that one day I'll be doing everything on a single device, but the fact that my laptop has a keyboard and mouse, easy task switching, TextExpander, AppleScript, Omnigraffle, Pixelmator and various other apps and tools means that day isn't here just yet.)
- Reliable business model – either clearly profitable (and therefore sustainable) or maintained by a company that is invested in the product. (ie. so that the same thing doesn't happen again when my new favourite RSS service gets bought out/deprecated/changes in a way I don't like.)
- From someone I like – ie. a trusted source. I'm not sure who this would be right now – obviously not Google. Facebook – I don't trust (because I'm not their customer.) Even Apple I'm not sure about here – their online services are just too opaque for me to be happy with them.
The knock-on effect of Reader closing down
Behind the scenes, Google Reader also offered a benefit for websites. Instead of every single RSS user/client hitting their servers every 5 minutes (every hour of every day, as long as they were open), Google would check for updates and keep everyone's feeds up to speed. Less load and bandwidth for their servers to deal with meant lower running costs. So, my guess is that as Reader users start playing with alternative tools, the kind of blogs and websites that saw lots of visitors via RSS will start to see their servers taking a higher toll from RSS readers.
Google Reader also offered a useful – if not officially documented or supported – way for 3rd part applications (like Flipboard, NetNewsWire, Zite, Pulse and many others) to synchronise 'news gathering' services with one another, so, they could provide different ways of presenting the latest news from your hand-picked favourite feeds – without you having to see the same news items again and again in different applications. These are the people and businesses which will be most immediately affected by the change – and, I would guess, the most likely to be coming up with decent alternatives right now.
But thats why Google Reader has been one of my most used web services for several years, across PCs, phones and tablets. I could easily jump from device to device and use Reader, without worrying about syncing, caching and other boring issues. I wasn't particularly happy about being so reliant on it - like Dave Winer, I "didn't trust the idea of a big company like Google's interests being so aligned with mine that I could trust them to get all my news." So now I feel oddly vindicated about my fears being right, and stupid for not having moved away sooner… I think what I expected was for Google to recognise what a useful tool they had built with Reader (and its users) and to put something even better into the Google+ platform. (The way that Google+ combines individual's social stuff with their identity as authors for blogs etc. seemed like it was moving towards something in this area… but sadly, there still doesn't seem to be any real point in clicking those +1 buttons – a Star in Reader serves as an effective bookmark. A +1 seems to do nothing of any value for me.) But it looks more like a case that Google want their platform to replace tools – not substitute them. (Check out Dave Winer's thoughts on what Google's new platform means.)
So, what do I do now? (Or rather, when Reader actually shuts down and becomes unavailable.) I don't know. My favourite idea is to put some time and effort into a project that I've been tinkering with, on and off, for a couple of years now; build my own web-based RSS reader. Of course, my idea for a web based RSS reader is something that naturally integrates with my own Twitter client and blogging platform, so the chances of me actually building this (let alone before July) are pretty slim. So, like everyone else, I guess I'll be watching closely over the next month or so to see what emerges from Reader's shadows and trying to remain optimistic that it will be an opportunity for innovation and progress.
Feedly is a popular reader, and they are building a cloud-based service, which sounds interesting. Digg (a social news site that got somewhat overshadowed by Reddit over the last few years) are building one too. Hopefully, those who are working on a replacement back-end for people building RSS clients will be looking at replicating the Google Reader API (and maybe if a set of documented standards comes out of the not-officially-documented Google Reader API, we will end up in a better place on the whole.)