This July, Google is killing its blogger-beloved RSS reader. But fear not: its zombie corpse will live on. And it'll be more of a 28 Days Later-type zombie, too, faster, uglier, but probably better than its predecessor.
Right now, everyone is pissed, or at least everyone who writes about news on the Internet is, because most of those people probably learned that Google Reader is shutting down from a feed on their Google Reader. Suddenly, with those headlines blaring and bloggers moaning, it appeared that everyone with a laptop used Reader, and couldn't possibly get on without it.
See, even though Reader was never a particularly sexy product, and it could be glaringly dull and a hassle to navigate even when perfectly optimized, and I couldn't really imagine using it if my job didn't demand I sift through dozens of online publications and news feeds every day, I've never encountered a viable replacement.
Over the years, folks have advocated just using Twitter, Facebook, and social media instead. But come on. There's far too much noise there, and it's far too inconvenient. I might happen to catch the pertinent New York Times tweet tumbling down my feed here and there, but it's so much more efficient to hit the source and scan all the headlines at once. Tumblr gets closer, but it comes packaged with a host of distracting images—which makes it great for perusing, not news-gathering.
Other techies claim you shouldn't be relying on any digest service at all, and instead just get really good at scanning for news without it by fine-tune your browsing habits or something, but those people don't know what they're talking about.
Bloggers need—as much as bloggers need anything—a reliable source of condensed, no-frills news, and Reader fit the bill. Apparently, there are alternatives to Reader out there, but most of them currently piggyback on Google's software. Marco Arment explains that "Google Reader is a convenient way to sync between our RSS clients today, but back when it was launched in 2005 ... it destroyed the market for desktop RSS clients. Client innovation completely stopped for a few years until iOS made it a market again — but every major iOS RSS client is still dependent on Google Reader for feed crawling and sync."
Which brings us to the silver lining here: Matt Yglesias points out that Google's Reader was effectively a monopoly on RSS organizers. He points us to John Siracusa, who quipped that Google's business strategy with Readers thus looks something like this:
1. Drive competing services out of business with a free service (subsidized by a profitable product).
2. Cancel free service.
Which means that there will be a big fat window for "innovation" and competitors will surely leap to the fore—perhaps with better, more user-friendly products that aren't as deadly dull as Google Reader. In fact, an RSS client called Reeder claims it will be ready to ride solo when Google pulls the plug in a few months. I imagine Feed.ly will get its act together, too.
This could be a huge market, after all: who spends more time online than bloggers? Bloggers stare at those feeds for hours every day, and not only that, marketing departments are under the impression that they are influencers and thought leaders and therefore their eyeballs are even more valuable than ordinary surfers—at least that's how whoever ends up making $100 million off of their new FeedReedPlus startup will pitch it to the VCs. The competition could backfire, too—too many ads or 'You Might Also Want to Digest...' recs could kill the requisite efficiency. But probably not, because we all know that tech startups just make cool apps and don't actually make any money.
Regardless, the specter of Google Reader will certainly live on, providing the architecture and sensibility for whatever feed-digester comes next. The Reader was good, for what it was—it was almost like a utility; bare, simple, boring—and as such, I will miss it as I'd miss a not-great branch of a public library. I needed it, I used it quite a bit, but I'm sure there's going to be something better. But I certainly wasn't in love with the thing—no one was—and its zombified successor will certainly be just fine.
Thumbnail image: Ann Arbor