The demise of Google Reader: Stability as a service

How can we commit to Google's platform when its services flicker in and out of existence?

Om Malik’s brief post on the demise of Google Reader raises a good point: If we can’t trust Google to keep successful applications around, why should we bother trying to use their new applications, such as Google Keep?

Given the timing, the name is ironic. I’d definitely like an application similar to Evernote, but with search that actually worked well; I trust Google on search. But why should I use Keep if the chances are that Google is going to drop it a year or two from now?

Google Keep screenshot

In the larger scheme of things, Keep is small potatoes. Google is injuring themselves in ways that are potentially much more serious than the success or failure of one app. Google is working on the most ambitious re-envisioning of computing since the beginning of the PC era: moving absolutely everything to the cloud. Minimal local storage; local disk drives, whether solid state or rust-based, are the problem, not the solution. Projects like Google Fiber show that they’re interested in seeing that people have enough bandwidth so that they can get at their cloud storage fast enough so that they don’t notice that it isn’t local.

It’s a breath-taking vision, on many levels: I should be able to have access to all of my work, regardless of the device I’m using or where it’s located. A mobile phone shouldn’t be any different from a desktop. I may not want to write software on a mobile phone (I can’t imagine coding on those tiny touch keyboards), but I should be able to if I want to. And I should definitely be able to take a laptop into the hills and work transparently over a 4G network.

Furthermore, why should I worry about local storage? The most common cause for throwing a computer on the bone pile is disk drive failure. Granted, I keep machines around for a long time, so by the time the disk drive fails, it’s more than time for an upgrade. But local disks require backups; backups are a pain; and it’s all too common for something to go wrong when you’re doing a restore. I’d prefer to leave backups to a professional in a data center. For that matter, there are many things I’d rather leave to a data center ops group: malware detection, authentication, software updates, you name it. Most of the things that make computing a pain disappear when you move them to the cloud.

So I’ve written two paragraphs about what’s wonderful about Google’s vision. Here’s what sucks. How can I contemplate moving everything to the cloud, especially Google’s cloud, if services are going to flicker in and out of existence at the whim of Google’s management? That’s a non-starter. Google has scrapped services in the past, and though I’ve been sympathetic with the people who complained about the cancellation, they’ve been services that haven’t reached critical mass. You can’t say that about Google Reader. And if they’re willing to scrap Google Reader, why not Google Docs? I bet more people use Reader than Docs. What if they kill the Prediction API, and you rely on that? There are alternatives to Reader, there may be alternatives to Docs (though most of the ones I knew have died on the vine), but I don’t know of anything remotely like the Prediction API. I could go on with “what ifs” forever (Authentication API? Web Optimizer?), but you get the point.

If Google is serious about providing a platform that lets us move all of our computing to the cloud, they need to provide a stable platform. So far, the tools are great, but Google gets a #fail for stability. Google understands the Internet far better than its competitors, but they’re demonstrating that they don’t understand their users. If you’re a product company, taking out the trash–cancelling the old projects, the non-productive products–is an unpleasant necessity. But Google is trying to be far more than a product company. They’re trying to become a platform company, and they don’t yet understand that’s a different game, with different rules.

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  • Exactly. And this also shows, to me, what Google doesn’t get about social. There’s a huge trust element that is missing. Not in the company – we don’t exactly trust Facebook.

    It’s in the idea that the things we love will be there later. I am happy with Evernote. I doubt I’ll use Google Keep or any other really great Google service, because from now on, I’m afraid that it will share the fate of Google Reader, Knol, Google Labs, iGoogle or so many of the other great tools I used, wrote about, linked to and evangelized. And for what… so I can watch them be ruined or disappear or annoyingly and often incorrectly folded into some other product.

    • Lance Hassan

      or like we have now with Picasa, sort of but not quite integrated with Plus…We should remember of course that Apple does this fairly often with their OS, when it’s no longer convenient to support backward compatibility they just cut it…listen to the screaming for a while and move on…The problem out here in the big wide world is that we can no longer smirk at Cupertino. Disassembling my Reader is going to be a massive pain, regardless of how how I am or am not using Reader it is still the the engine that everything else taps.

      • freediverx

        Has Apple killed services that were as popular as Reader, though?

        For instance, they seem to have now abandoned Safari for Windows, but Safari for Windows doesn’t exactly have a huge following.

        (Still worries me because I definitely prefer Safari on the Mac and iOS, and this will further reduce Safari’s overall marketshare, and increase the likelihood that my favorite websites will no longer bother testing their latest changes for Safari compatibility.)

        Apple has also been ahead of the curve in dumping soon to be obsolete technologies like serial, parallel and VGA ports, floppy disks, and pretty soon optical drives and hard drives. But I see these as positive moves, embracing superior alternatives and throwing out the unnecessary baggage.

        When has Apple arbitrarily abandoned a truly good and useful service without providing a better alternative?

        • Last Breath

          Apple as killed support for PowerPCs, Intel Based Macs, iPhones, based on their upgrades to new OS. Remember Apple’s Ads about how Windows 7 did this? Well Apples did it too. I would say that Apple is doing it at a faster rate now than Windows ever did before.

          • freediverx

            Apple’s OS upgrades typically support several year old desktops and notebooks, and at least a couple of iPhone and iPad iterations. I have a 4 year old MBP that I’m now selling and this thing runs Mountain Lion very nicely.

            Now, for someone who is always looking for the lowest price option, who always waits until a computer model is near end of life before buying a replacement, then yeah, that person is more likely to see their computer obsoleted sooner.

            PowerPCs were supported way longer than I thought they would be. Not sure what you mean about Intel Macs – all Macs are Intel now. On iOS, due to the fast rate of advancement in the mobile space it’s to be expected that these devices will not be supported as long as non mobile computers. But Apple supports iOS devices WAAAAY better and longer than the sort of support and upgrades you’ll get on Android devices.

          • floatingbones

            @Last_Breath: I don’t see how one could possibly equivocate Google’s dropping of support for Reader with Apple’s dropping of support for old hardware.

            I owned a PowerPC machines; I was happy with the support window for the old platform. More importantly, Apple’s Rosetta allowed PowerPC software to run seamlessly on the new Intel machines. Apple’s slogan for Rosetta was “The most amazing software you’ll never see.” I heartily agree with this slogan. I dealt with this kind of platform-conversion; I am completely amazed with the seamless job that Apple did on that transition.

            I also have no problem with EOLing various iPhone and iPod Touch versions. The older machines simply didn’t have the physical resources to hack the new features put into the new versions of the OS. The only line in the sand that was troubling was that older Intel machines can’t run Lion (10.7) or later; I don’t know of a good hardware reason for that. At the same time, Snow Leopard (10.6) is still a viable OS — Apple just sent out a security update for that platform.

            OTOH, Google’s services do not have any of these hardware restrictions. There’s absolutely no reason that Google Reader shouldn’t be runnable forever. Unlike support issues with older hardware, Google’s Reader service should easily be runnable forever.

            One other note: comparisons between Apple OS upgrades and MS’s OS upgrades are fairly meaningless. Apple is only charging $19.99 for the upgrade to Mountain Lion (10.8); MS’s OS upgrades have historically cost over $100. Paying a Hamilton to upgrade to Mountain Lion is a no-brainer.

    • fjcmclgm

      Yup. That’s the great thing about open source. The big company can’t take the code away from you.

      And it’s hilarious to watch Google talk about how “open” they are. They could have open sourced all of these tools but they didn’t and they won’t. They only use open source as a crowbar to get what they want and get richer.

      • Discit

        That’s the problem I have with android. It seems like a tricky use of “open source” to me.
        Google controls the development teams that decide what is a core function, maneuvering it so you need to put their closed source spyware on for it to be functional as a smartphone, so most geeks root it, put on cyogemnod, then go right back putting the closed source system level spyware right back on or break things. The google apps are as closed source as it gets and their various agreements prevent them from being replaced by partners.

    • gvanderleun

      Of course Google doesn’t get social. That was obvious within one week of the arrival of Google+. Google, at its core, is not a “social” company. It’s a company with more, much more, than the average number of Aspergers afflicted nerds among its brainiacs. They really aren’t that social,you know. Google+ and it’s risible “circles” is like some bright but nerdy stay at home kids idea of being social. It would seem that along with “don’t be evil” the other Google slogan should be “don’t be really cool, just pretend.”

  • meandering
  • Justin Redd

    Google makes money off docs by selling walled-garden versions of it to business, universities, etc. But they have found no way to earn money off Reader. I don’t think Google demands that everything make money. But services that don’t bring in money are at greater risk than those that do.

    Reader was extra vulnerable, as it competed with G+. Google wants people to move to + for discovering and sharing content.

    I suspect Blogger/blogspot will be the next to go.

    • freediverx

      And with every popular service that Google kills, fewer people will be willing to embrace whatever new service they’re pawning off at the moment. I see this as a great thing, as I’m all for any developments that harm Google’s influence.

  • ejwettstein

    While I appreciate the need to pare products that aren’t making them money, I’m not planning to try their new products anymore. At least, not until the product is making money.

    What’s Google Keep? I don’t care, yet. (or at all.) Google Plus, I’m all set up, but I don’t use it much. I’m not going to encourage anyone to use it; I don’t want that responsibility. Free Google Apps, that was great. Not free apps, there are alternatives.

    Honestly, I’ve discovered that I really like Feedly. It has many of the things that I was hoping for in the past couple of years in Google Reader. Google isn’t the hungry start-up and hasn’t been in a long time.

  • David Karger

    Here’s how Google can let us move things to the cloud without fear: separate (and standardize) storage from applications, using standardized data representations.

    Storage is a utility, boring but necessary. The companies who offer just that (dropbox, box, sugarsync) aren’t suddenly going to stop storing things because it isn’t their business model. And if they do, we can just pick up our data and move it somewhere else.

    Of course, that’s what people are doing with reader, but it isn’t working. Why? People’s problem with Google isn’t the loss of stored data; it’s the loss of stored data *that only Google can understand*. What you’ve starred, the preference model’s it’s learned, and so forth. It’s the non-open data part of the application that makes this shutdown so damaging.

    And this shows the way forward: if a cloud application stores all of its data in an accessible, standard format, then a shutdown need not be very traumatic. It’s simple for anyone offering a similar service to import that data and let the user pick up where they left off. In fact, the two roles can be completely separate: it’s quite reasonable to envision and application that stores all its state in your Dropbox, fetching it for processing and depositing results back there.

    Why isn’t this the standard? Because it makes it *too easy* for users to switch, which makes companies feel threatened. The same characteristics that would make it easy for me to leave Reader and take my data with me if they shut down the service also make it easy for me to leave Reader and take my data with me if I decide they aren’t doing a good job. Companies want to make that hard.

    But we can force this model on them. If storage utilities offer good APIs, then small, open source projects that want to provide a cloud *without* investing a lot of resources in their cloud infrastructure can easily do so—if the data is safe on Dropbox, it’s no big deal if the cloud application is less than 100% reliable. And their users will gain the flexibility to come and go at will. Once people recognize the benefit of such an approach, I hope it will generate sufficient demand for it that larger companies will be unable to refuse.

    • Aditya Raj Bhatt

      Nicely put. Also, the sort of open data formats you talk about, encourage competition which finally makes the product better for the end user (too many companies forget the final priority). Also, once a user gets used to Google’s integrated infrastructure, its a simple matter of pointing out a feature that a competitor has (through feedback service) and get it implemented, rather than switching to a completely new and potentially inferior ecosystem.

    • Discit

      My unwillingness to embrace google’s cloud is their several violations of privacy and arrogance that they can rifle through everything you have to enrich their advertisement value, just because they offer a free service. They were caught downloading user and non user information with their cars, and when IE and Safari users turned off cookies they simply hacked their computers to monitor all their Internet browsing… That kind of snooping and invasive data collection is irresponsible and inconsiderate at best. And that’s just people sitting at home on their own computers. How will the same company behave when they have all your data?

  • kiran bhanushali

    Good post. The more you think about it the more you feel Google should charge people for all these tools and make money on them at the same time not feel the pressure to kill off services when they feel like the service is either a burden or of less strategic significance.

    And to add to this in a lot of services the feeling that Google is a monopoly keeps getting stronger. Had google reader not been the big elephant in the room there would still have been a lot of competition and innovation happening. And who knows perhaps an open version of a networked sharing app analogous to facebook would have emerged without the closed door implications. But thats speculation. Point is with the funding from google ads there are a lot of smaller markets that get obliterated before they have a chance to mature.

    • fjcmclgm

      You make a good point, but that would break the vision of the web that Google pushes: we do everything for free and they make money channeling that that free stuff back through their search engine. If they started charging, the newspapers and the writers and the photographers might want to start getting paid too.

      It’s all about making the billionaires at GOOG richer.

    • Discit

      I think the value of a google service to them is how much information on your habits, likes, contacts, etc. a “free” service gives them.

    • Zerker

      “Open version of a networked sharing app” you mean like Diaspora?

  • Don’t you ever trust Google.
    This cash rich sucker will just do whatever they dumbo staffs think fit, they have no respect for Joe. They have betrayed me for the past one decade, again and again … Right now, I just let all my Google services rot, I even started using many serach engine including those from China … Google is just another spoilt brat that will never know you, ever.
    So forget them … Avaoid Google like a plague !

  • Geez, you whiners sound like spurned lovers. I used and liked Reader for many years, but that doesn’t mean I think I have some right for it to exist. Services on the web go in and out of existence. Some die because no one uses it, some because the company shuts its doors and some because the company or individual changes focus.

    Honestly, feedly is a better service than Reader has been in a few years. Is it perfect? No, and neither was Reader. Keep is perfectly fine for what it is. The way it’s set up, it’s not meant to replace Evernote. It’s a different thing.

  • dave

    On the face of it Reader is an ideal web-service for Google.

    It allows extremely targeted ads to be served to its users based on their feed preferences and content, and is generally used by professional, tech-savvy users – an attractive demographic for Google’s advertisers.

    Google’s paranoia over its poor showing in social has allowed its heart to overrule its head and make a poor decision that has at least, in the short term, done harm to Google’s reputation as the ‘do no evil’ company

    • freediverx

      Google wants everybody to give up separate, standalone services and fully embrace Google+. Reader and iGoogle arguably draw traffic away from their Google+ “portal” so these actions are consistent with their strategy.

      Of course the problem with this strategy is that the vast majority of people are not the slightest bit interested in embracing Google+ as their “internet portal” – due to a) lack of a compelling user experience and utility and b) utter distrust of handing over even more of our personal information to Google.

  • xupamos

    Google reader closing down probably had to do with the french publisher wanting users to come to their sites to read contents.

  • Great piece.

  • Reader was my wake-up call. I’ll do everything in my power not to use cloud services, particularly Google’s, as my primary point of storage for any data, but merely as an add-on or feature for data/services that I can actually own and control. As for Keep, the only thing that was possibly compelling about it, reliability and longevity, went out the window with the Google Reader fiasco.

    • PauldeDigitect

      This is my wake-up call too.
      Just what I needed to replace my old synology NAS (207+) and buy me a new one.
      Hopefully synology will provide me with a good RSS-reader service, and if not, then I will contribute to the synology community to develop one.
      bye bye Google reader :-(.

  • Perhaps reality is settling in about Google’s lack of openness and transparency.

  • Dave Turner

    Totally agree… Google Reader going away has totally shaken my faith in Google, and this is coming from a true fan of the company.. At this point I’m open to a new Email, Calendar client and even a phone.

    • freediverx

      I dropped their Calendar ages ago after having the sync screw everything up repeatedly and spending days cleaning up the mess.

      GMail and Search are the only remaining Google services I’m dependent on, and let’s just say I’m very receptive to any viable alternatives that might enter the market.

  • Christian Franklin

    I agree with Mike’s point around ‘trust’. The fact is there is time investment in learning, developing, curating, changing patterns, etc. and it sucks when something like Reader gets yanked. One unintended (positive) consequence of this particular situation is that if forced me to go look around for an alternative and I found solution(s) that are multiple notches above the spartan, utilitarian features in Reader. Evernote spans my ‘multi-platform’ world well so it’s a Keeper (pun). Good post & comments though!

  • webmuser

    Reality of ‘free’ services; they are not free
    Give up privacy, give up control
    Pendulum will start swinging toward companies that can be relied on .. for the long term…something old vc’s have been decrying with the flash of the new startups, that sold out quikcly, without care for their users long term interests

  • Google Keep is geared toward the up and coming Google Glass project….period…

  • Alex_Atkin_UK

    This is exactly why ever since the early days of people insisting “everything will be in the cloud in the future”, I wasn’t sold on the idea then and I am still not sold on it now. The difference is, people are starting to see now what it was always obvious would happen, big businesses able to withdraw services on a whim.

    While I have no business use for the cloud so do not have to worry too much, it comes as no surprise at all to find services being withdrawn. Its only logical that my data will never be safe on a service that depends on making a profit to continue functioning. You should always have a backup plan, which to me kills a lot of the point of using the cloud in the first place, convenience.

    This also is becoming a big deal in gaming, where the servers can now be taken offline with a mere 30 days notice, even if that might only be 30 days after you bought the game or even 30 after you bought an online pass. It just highlights the point, its not so much the data you need to worry about (you should always have a backup), its the software. Because if its not freely available to run on your own server, you are so out of luck if it is withdrawn as you not only need to restore the missing data, you need to potentially learn how a new service works and likely end up missing a lot of features you previously relied upon.

    Let that be a lesson, if its important to your business then you should be running it on your own server where you can guarantee it will continue to work for years to come. There are still businesses running legacy software on DOS/Unix because “it just works” and costs a lot to migrate to a newer system. Those same businesses would be deep trouble if they had relied on some third-party cloud hosted service, I can see a LOT of businesses falling into that exact trap in the future.

  • Lourenço

    I know that in Portugal the main newspapers were planning on prosecuting Google for scrapping their articles. this was a major movement here.

    I think the major problem with Google is communication. They take the “for free” and “beta” sign to phase out services with no explanation at all.

  • Dave Derrick

    Yup, I use Google Reader almost daily, and also iGoogle which I really love – thats also being killed off. I can appreciate they have new ideas & services, but let us choose when to stop using those we like.

  • DudemanRafsanJani

    Dropping Google Reader, has caused me to re-evaluate my relationship with Google. I need to come up with way to not be dependent on their mercurial management decisions, concerning my data. That will be a hard thing to do, but they made the decision for me. Your article hits this issue right on the head: The Cloud has advantages, but one huge issue, is who is in control.

  • steven21in

    Could you imagine of a day when these tech giants willing only sell the data to other but we have to pay for own data

  • Brian Balke

    Everybody loves to bash big software for its instability. Microsoft has been the favorite whipping boy, and now we have Google in the stockade. Back in the day, IBM handled the problem by doing all of its advanced technology development in-house, canabalizing the best features for their 360 systems and euthanizing the remainder.
    I hope that people are coming to realize that these systems are incredibly complicated, rivaling perhaps actual biological ecosystems, and that evolving them is a difficult management challenge. I’m wondering why Google doesn’t sell off these assets when they expire. Maybe they’re getting to the stage of doing integration analysis, and want to hold on the the IP until they define a framework technology. ActiveX, COM, DCOM, .NET – hopefully they’ll learn from their predecessors.

  • Try the new Google Vision app .. you only get one day to try it … oh wait, it was last Friday .. sorry.

  • Pedro

    Why should we even use google. If we give it too much power, soon enougth it will be called googlenetor “Skynet”.
    I try to keep my webprint as small as I can and leave nothing in the cloud

  • I use Google drive, but it is backed up on 3 computers if Google Drive goes offline.

  • every software company has to cut it’s losses even if it’s at the expense of the user or the developer community. You can’t support everything for ever. It’s just not possible. Anyone who’s totally miffed about Google, Apple, Microsoft or anyone else taking away their ‘precious’ might want to pick up a copy of ‘Who moved my cheese’

  • Luiz Felipe

    There had a solution for this before these ad-shit based business. You simply pay for the service and it will not go down arbitrary and as a plus you don’t see advertisement polluting you screen.

  • RegineMarfie

    first Off… I greet all google stake holders and employees and supervisors up to the top my warmest easter greetings which reads most fondly : …

    screw you google… after what you will do with google reader I will not trrust you with anything ever again…

    remember you can fool most of the people ONLY ONCE Google demonstrates repeatedly over and over to the world, in the economies of scale… you r just a blood sucking money whore like the pan handlers on the street… I should have paid attention when the told me

    GOOGLE IS EVIL because it’s true