Google, destroyer of ecosystems


Google has finally shut down a service I actually care about - Google Reader will die a graceless, undignified death on July 1, 2013. The only way Google could inconvenience me more would be to shut down search itself, and yet - I'm not angry that Google is shutting Reader down. I'm furious that they ever entered the RSS game at all. Consider this quote from a TechCrunch article in January 2006. Here, Michael Arrington ends an article about the shutdown of a feed reader service with a statement that seems truly bizarre today:

The RSS reader space is becoming hyper competitive, with dozens of different choices for readers.

A hyper competitive space with dozens of choices? Reader made its first public appearance a couple of months before this, in October 2005. I remember this period well - it was a time of immense excitement, when RSS seemed to be the future, the news ecosystem was vibrant, and this thing called the blogosphere, fueled by peer subscription, was doubling in size every six months. It was into this magic garden that Google wandered, like a giant toddler leaving destruction in its wake. Reader was undeniably a good product, but it's best quality was also its worst: it was free. Subsidized by Google's immense search profits, it never had to earn its keep, and its competitors started to die. Over time, the "hyper competitive" RSS reader market turned into a monoculture. Today, on the eve of its shutdown, RSS more or less means "Google Reader" to a large fraction of readers, to the extent where even the best feed readers on IOS are just Google Reader clients1.

The sudden shock of Reader's closure will harm a news ecosystem that I already believe to be deeply ill. Google Reader is not just a core part of my information diet - it's also the most direct channel I have to readers of this blog. As of today, the Reader subscriber count for stands at about 3 times the total number of other subscribers combined. Some of these readers will migrate to other services and stay in touch, but many will inevitably abandon the idea of direct subscription to blogs entirely. In the next few months, tens of thousands of small blogs will lose direct contact with a large fraction of their readers.

The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player. Today it does further damage by buggering up the already beleaguered links between publishers and readers. It would have been better for the Internet if Reader had never been at all.


Yes, I'm aware that there are a few hardy outliers still playing in this place. My own logs show that their reach is insignificant, though, and when I tried to shift my subscriptions about a year ago, there was nothing as good as Reader itself. Once NewsBlur's servers have recovered, I definitely plan to give it another shot.