UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

What Does the Demise of Google Reader Tell Us About Open Web Standards?

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 14 March 2013

Google Reader is Dead!

Google ReaderEarlier this morning I came across the news that Google have announced the demise of their Google Reader service:

We’re retiring Reader on July 1. We know many of you will be sad to see it go. Thanks for 8 great years! goo.gl/7joct

Despite the announcement only being made a few hours ago we are already seeing bloggers up in arms about the news. We might expect large-scale service such as TechCrunch (GoogleReaderpocalypse. For Real This Time.) to provide a speedy response to the news but closer to home bloggers such as James Clay have responded in blunt terms: Google Reader is Dead.

What Does the Announcement Tell us About Open Web Standards?

The implications of the demise of applications was always intended to be mitigated by use of open standards. But in this case the underlying format used by Google Reader (RSS) is widely accepted as an open standard in both its variants (RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0). Blogs will continue to publish RSS feeds as will a variety of other tools and services. Why should the demise of Google Reader cause so much anger amongst users of the tool?

As RSS grew in popularity we saw the development of a range of RSS readers. Initially we saw dedicated RSS clients which users installed on their desktop. We then saw RSS add-ons to existing tools, including RSS extensions for popular email clients such as Outlook. But the development of the “Web as a platform” led to a growth in popularity of Web-based RSS tools, which meant that users did not have to install software on their desktop computer (which was particularly useful for those with locked-down desktops and IT Service departments who were reluctant to install new software).

One of the early Web-based RSS readers was Bloglines. I used this service many years ago but haven’t logged in for several years. As I learnt from Wikipedia the service was scheduled to be shut down on 15 November 2010 but a last-minute reprieve meant that it continued under a new owner. However a few minutes ago when on to the service I discovered that the feeds that I had subscribed to had been lost. This was not a problem for me, as I have migrated by feeds to Google Reader. But now it seems that I will once again shortly be losing the service I use to view my RSS feeds.

I should be able to export the list of my feeds held in Google Reader and return to Bloglines as my preferred RSS reader. However in reality it will not be so simple. I now use a variety of tools on my mobile devices (such as Flipboard, Currents, Pulse, etc.) to read my feeds, and use Google Reader as the intermediary for managing my large number of RSS feeds. I suspect I will be reluctant to wish to manage my subscriptions across a range of clients. For me, as for many others who have been commenting on blogs today, Google Reader has been the ideal tool.

What conclusions can we reach about the role of Web standards in light of Google’s announcement?

The view that open standards protected the user from the vagaries of the market place seems to be undermined – in reality it seems that users grow to love tools which are embedded in daily use.

It also appears that successful applications not only attract large numbers of users; successful applications can also attract developers and companies who can develop an ecosphere of applications which are dependent on services such as Google Reader.

It also seems that social sharing services are undermining the use of RSS for bringing relevant content to users. Perhaps related to this will be the difficulties companies will have in monetising RSS feeds.

It is interesting to see the arguments which have been made in the Hitler parody: Hitler finds out Google Reader is shutting down which is available on YouTube and embedded below. I’d be interested in other’s thoughts on the reasons for the closure of Google Reader and the implications of this announcement.


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11 Responses to “What Does the Demise of Google Reader Tell Us About Open Web Standards?”

  1. AJ Cann said

    “social sharing services are undermining the use of RSS for bringing relevant content to users. Perhaps related to this will be the difficulties companies will have in monetising RSS feeds.”
    Got it in one.

  2. Andy Heath said

    Ouch! Persistence of services that hook us in is a tricky issue – not just when the disappear but when they change – one builds up so much that depends on them its serious work to move on or keep with the change. This seems to be an instance of the general problem of software change (e.g. OS and other software upgrades – here today, changed tomorrow).

    Love the H video Brian. I’m going to re-share on FB. Hmmmm – we have “retweet” but it seems we don’t have a word that fits well with re-posting on FB. “re-post” doesn’t quite have the needed ring to it. Any suggestions for a word ? (not to detract from the central issue here though)

  3. mhawksey said

    “The view that open standards protected the user from the vagaries of the market place seems to be undermined”
    Hmm not sure if this is a standards thing. It’s more about the confidence in web services. Web services choose if they want to be free, web services choose if they want to close tomorrow, web services choose whether or not to produce RSS, web services choose whether or not to allow you to consume RSS. The RSS Advisory Board has no power to say ‘you shall choose RSS’

    “It also appears that successful applications not only attract large numbers of users; successful applications can also attract developers and companies who can develop an ecosphere of applications which are dependent on services such as Google Reader.”

    This is perhaps where Google went wrong. Unlike Google+, which is notoriously locked down, the fact that companies could piggyback the expense Google went in aggregating all this data only for someone else to come along and monetize it … that’s a bitter pill.

    This announcement is less about open standards and more commercial pressure (imho)

    • For all of us who are excited by open data/standards and APIs this should be a concern.

      Can ‘open’ services support themselves? Or will open always be an aside to the ‘proper’ commercial activity?

      • mhawksey said

        The Internet has always struggled with being ‘free as in kittens’ at the end of the day someone has to feed and care for it. Can open services support themselves? No, but communities support open services. Whilst your community flourishes providing the substance your service needs it will survive, otherwise it dies.

  4. Hi Martin
    You concluded This announcement is less about open standards and more commercial pressure
    I completely agree!
    The point I was making was that previously we felt that open standards would help avoid difficulties caused by changes in pricing structures and sustainability of commercial tools. For example in a a paper on Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites published back in 2003 we had a fairly uncritical view of the benefits of open standards:

    Although a commitment to Web development based on open standards is desirable in practice it is likely that there will be occasions when use of proprietary solutions may be needed. But the acceptance of a mixed economy in which open standards and proprietary formats can be used as appropriate can lead to dangers. So should we mandate strict compliance with open standards or should we tolerate a mixed economy? This paper seeks to explore these issues.

    We failed to understand that a company might be so successful in using a particular open standard that it made it difficult for there to be a thriving infrastructure of competitors!

    • mhawksey said

      So lets celebrate the death of Google Reader as an opportunity for others to provide innovative services around RSS.

      Google Reader is dead, long live RSS! :)

  5. petejwpr said

    Thanks to open standards, I was able to migrate to another application..

    As others have pointed out, it says rather less about open standards than it does about the monopoly power of the Web tech behemoths – and, sadly, our tendency to be seduced into supporting the development of those monopolies. As Dave Winer points out http://threads2.scripting.com/2013/march/wakingUpToTheWorldAroundYou increasingly these companies are seeking to control what we access and how we access it.

    What this episode tells me (or rather, reminds me – I knew already) is that Google does not act in my (or other “users”‘) interests. From skimming the blogosphere (ever so 2006 of me, I know), it seems that came home to quite a lot of people.

    • Talk about G+ in wakingupto (link above)…, has anyone seen Google Now, available on jelly bean tablets?? – this will read your searches, posts etc. and make suggestions on a pinterest type board, which you can swipe away – this is not just your calendar appointments, but advice based on an interpretation of what you search for etc. i guess this is probably the key part of the glass technology, but how to define where this info comes from except through some basic on/off switches….

  6. very annoyed at the demise of google reader – i’ve only just started using it as an RSS aggregator. liek the woman in the H video says though “don’t worry he can export his feeds as XML”

    Does anyone know of any open source RSS aggregators that I can import my XML into? Don’t care much for Reader per se, unless there is some key feature I am missing here…

    PS Currents feels much more like a ‘newspaper’ but it is a memory hog disk-eater :0

  7. I will definitely miss Google Reader: Sad to read the announcement: ” We’re retiring Reader on July 1. We know many of you will be sad to see it go. Thanks for 8 great years!”. I’m in the same position as one of the other commentators as I have just started using it as an RSS aggregator.

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