Why Google killed off Google Reader: It was self-defense

It’s not a huge surprise that Google is dropping Google Reader,
the blog reader it operated since 2005. After all, they’d let it go for
some time now (not that I’m complaining – it was after all, a free
service, a fine product, and a boon for the overall ecosystem of
blogging, podcasts and RSS).

The reality, though, is that Google operates at vast scale, and a
niche consumer product like Reader just doesn’t move the needle. As
crazy as it may sound, today even a billion-dollar business is simply a
distraction to Google (unless, of course, it’s well on the way to
becoming a five-billion-dollar business).

So all those who are signing petitions to Google  (and even one to The White House!)
are missing the bigger point: that this is a victim of the company’s
DNA, one that’s accelerated under Larry Page’s management. Some
companies specialize in keeping the status quo, others specialize in
moving forward. Google is the latter. If the company maintained every
niche product with N thousand fans, even paying ones, it’d become the
very bungling bureaucracy we love to hate. For a company with Google’s
ethos and standing, any such dead-end, non-revenue-producing product
that’s retained is holding others back, and prevents the company from
moving forward and making true innovations instead of incremental
improvements.

Open standards just a means to an end

While Google is giving up on Reader, I believe the company will still
embrace subscriptions in a big way, just without RSS (by which I mean
RSS, Atom, PubSubHubbub, etc.) Sure, they may continue to lean on RSS as
part of their technical infrastructure – e.g. Googlebot will still be
crawling external RSS feeds to identify fresh content – but users won’t
see those three letters or the shiny feed icon that accompanies them.

To understand why Google’s walking away from RSS, look at Google’s
relationship with open standards over the past decade. Google has
experimented with various open technologies and found it difficult to
win over Google-scale audiences and developers. The list of casualties
would include OpenSocial (present in Orkut but not Plus), Activity
Streams (present in Buzz, but not Plus, though certainly an inspiration), Social Graph API (no longer available) and RSS (not just Reader, but Feedburner is fading out and podcast app Listen was killed months ago).

Furthermore, Android has been a stonking success for the company, and
while it may be open source, with a relatively open store policy, it’s
not particularly based on open standards in the way that ChromeOS,
WebOS, and now Firefox OS are.

So overall, Google’s lesson has been to lead with a compelling user
experience first and then build an API from there, an API which may be
based on open standards, but only if it’s a means to an end. Developers
are much more attracted to a big market than a glorious proclamation of
Open. It’s this philosophy that explains why Google has been so cautious
with the Google Plus API.

Doubling down on media

Google isn’t giving up on blogs and media. Far from it. They already have Google News, Google Currents, and Google Now. And on Plus, they have vibrant product pages and communities. The Economist, Time, and ESPN all have over 2 million followers, for example.

This comes at a time when Facebook has been facing a backlash from journalists,
with people saying that unless you’re paying for sponsored posts, it
doesn’t show up in streams. Facebook’s recent design aims to fix this
with a separate Subscriptions area, but as discussed on this week’s TWIT,
it’s looking more like they experimented with subscriptions, that it
wasn’t core to their business of connecting individuals, and now it’s
off to the side.

So Google has an opportunity to win over media brands right now, and I
believe they’ll be placing an emphasis on this in their own apps like
Currents, as well as on Google Plus proper. In many respects, Currents
is exactly what you’d expect from Google in 2013. It’s pretty,
mobile-native, and “just works” without anyone having to learn the
details of RSS.

Looking further ahead, Google has a vision heavily influenced by
machine learning. The company has long known that the best search is the
one you didn’t have to make, and this always-on attitude is now coming
to fruition with Google Now.
Google Now anticipates what users might be interested in at any time,
and that includes the kind of articles people might presently be
discovering on Google Plus.

Reader’s demise is understandably a sad moment for many, but I
believe in time, it will be a positive for the overall ecosystem. Google
simply wasn’t innovating on Reader, and as people shift over to
services like Feedly or Newsblur (and new ones are popping up as I
write), those companies will have extra incentive to innovate and extra
resources to do so. Meanwhile, Google will continue to work on what it
does best: boiling oceans and shooting for the moon.

Michael Mahemoff previously worked at Google and is founder of cloud podcasting service player.fm. Follow him on Twitter @mahemoff.

 | Gigaom

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