Reading the Google Reader Tea-leaves

If you were online late last night – and especially if you were on Twitter – you may have noted an enormous wave of pain and anger sweeping across the network. Here's what caused it:

We have just announced on the Official Google Blog that we will soon retire Google Reader (the actual date is July 1, 2013). We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go. We're sad too.

There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we're pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

To ensure a smooth transition, we're providing a three-month sunset period so you have sufficient time to find an alternative feed-reading solution. If you want to retain your Reader data, including subscriptions, you can do so through Google Takeout.

There are multiple lessons to be learned here.

First, of course, is that you cannot ever trust centralised, closed-source services. Since you are not in control, somebody else is. And even if that somebody is a hugely profitable company like Google, their priorities are not your priorities, and one day those will clash, and you will lose. Open source code, preferably hosted on your own server, is the only safe way to maintain your independence.

Secondly, thank goodness for open standards. As the post above points out, you can easily download your RSS feeds in an XML format which you can then import into another reader (some suggestions here and here.)

Thirdly, I think this is evidence that Google is changing. The cost of keeping Google Reader going must be relatively small compared to things like the running costs for the company's $25 million private jet. In the past, Google wouldn't have worried about the extra outgoings, but now it is obviously counting the pennies more carefully.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case I think it's a major miscalculation. As I observed my Twitter stream erupt with digital howls last night, it became clear that a very large number of the most influential people in the digital world use Google Reader extremely intensively (I do too). Google has now succeeding in making them unhappy, if not truly angry – obviously, we have no right to be really angry, since it was a free service. In an age of network effects where companies can be brought down by a few powerful voices driving online campaigns, that is not a good thing.

Taken together with the comments from its Global Privacy Counsel that I discussed yesterday, I think this shows that Google is losing it – not seriously, and not in any catastrophic sense, but slowly and surely. This happens to every company – think of how IBM was once invincible, think of how Microsoft has fallen. Ridiculous as it may sound, I think we will look back and see Google's ill-judged decision to shut down Google Reader as the day things started to go downhill for the company.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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