Thank you for killing Google Reader

The news that Google would be killing their Reader service as of July 2013 was a surprise to many people, myself included! RSS is an internet technology that many people rely on to access news, blog articles, podcasts etc, and has been put to many other uses relating to the notification of available information and media. Over the years Google Reader has become the only RSS platform available. When launched in 2005 their Reader service was available for free, and eventually become the sole RSS aggregation service after other paid for services became untenable. Google Readers dominance continued until March 2013 when we were informed the service was being shut down, citing the reason of “declining use”. This naturally led to an outcry from blog owners everywhere who relied on the service to get their writing out to their audience.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication and is simply a document on a website which is continually updated with information on it’s latest articles. A RSS document includes text from each article, metadata such as publishing dates and authorship, and is saved with a .rss extension. Because of this continual and often automatic updates to a websites RSS document it is often called a “feed”; something we can connect to and get information from.

One simple method of “feed reading” is to use a desktop application called a “feed reader” into which we add the URL of a websites RSS document (its feed). The feed reeder would then go and fetch the latest copy of the RSS document from a website and display the articles contained in it in a human readable format. Since multiple sites RSS feeds could be accessed from a single feed reader application, this quickly became a popular way of subscribing to websites so that people could read their articles as they were published, and feed readers were added into email clients and web browsers, so new articles could be delivered in whatever form works best for the user.

What is this Google Reader you speak of?

Google Reader was both a RSS reading website where you could read your feeds from within a web browser, and also a RSS feed aggregation platform that other developers’ RSS reader applications could access. Since its inception, the Google Reader platform has provided the feed aggregation service for many other independently developed apps. So instead of each application having to subscribe to it’s own RSS feeds, this was done once in Google Reader then you would connect your reader applications on your laptop or mobile device to the Google Reader platform and it would synchronise your read articles and favourites across different platforms and applications. Having a single service that you added feeds to meant that all you needed was a Google “Subscribe” button in the tool bar of your web browser and you could add any website with an RSS feed.

How did we use it?

Originally if we wanted to catch up with what people were writing on the web we would keep a series of browser bookmarks and go and visit each of the individual site directly. As you can imagine (or perhaps even remember!) this wasn’t a particularly efficient method of keeping up with the latest posts, or being notified that new articles existed on our favourite sites. With Google Reader we could “subscribe” to a site which would then be added to our Google Reader Feed, which also enabled us to organise and categorise different site feeds into folders. Now we could go directly to Google Reader, or use another compatible application connected to the service to get all our news and updates in the one place.

Mobile news

RSS really hit the big time when mobile apps were developed for the iPhone, iPad and android devises, so we could really get news on the go. All we had to do was to configure these mobile applications to log in to Google and they would automatically pull down the feed to get our latest unread articles. Once we had read an article, this information was sent back to the Google Reader platform so that the next time we logged in to the app, the updates we received were current for us.

Why do I care?

Research is key to what I do. For me, and for many others in the information age, our jobs are as a knowledge workers: It is vital for me to keep up to date on a variety of topics and to be able to look into new subjects. For both of these things access to information is key, the problem is in how to filter the volume of new information that the internet is constantly offering. How do you make the time you spend reading updates, new blogs and articles as profitable as possible? I need access to new writings from authors I trust, as well as sites whose topics I’m interested in. I want to see new articles as they appear, and I want to be able to read them as I see them, or possible save them to read later. I want to be able to share them, and also to save them for future use. Google Reader provided all these services for me, and I could choose new apps with useful new features as they were released to connect to the service….and now it has gone. So where do I go from here?

What news?

One of the first realisations we’re heading in a new and interesting direction came the day after the Google announcement: A number of different developers were saying that they would step in and produce their own RSS solutions. This really showed me that there was still wide interest in the technology, that many saw it as a fundamental internet service and thought it viable commercially, even if Google had decided it conflicted with their future strategy. (Declining use my arse!)

The components of RSS

RSS consists of a number of components; a reader to allow you to consume your news feeds, a mechanism to subscribe to new feeds, and an aggregation service that you register your subscriptions with.

Where are we now

Right now we are seeing a move back to a competitive development environment with different solutions and price models for an internet service which people are actually prepared to pay for. This is great for several reasons: Firstly, a paid model is a sustainable one and most services are very affordable at about $2/month. Secondly, developers are trying to differentiate themselves through more intelligent offerings; for example Feed Wrangler is offering smart feeds which allow you to configure which subset of articles you want to see from your feed, say articles from a site about mobile technology, but you only want to see articles on iPhone but not Android.

The RSS Reader developers are also stepping up and coming up with new innovations. Feedly is offering a great user experience by integrating the apps and the feed into a single solution as well as supplying a feed for the app of your choice.

What I’m hoping for is more innovation like this. Here’s my wish list - more customisable feeds, the ability to export your “subscriptions” and configurations from service to service, good subscription capabilities that we can have within the reader as well as the web browser, the ability to follow a single author on a site, and the holy grail for me and many others - discovery, how do we find new worthy feeds?

How do I get it?

If you are new to RSS then I would suggest you go look up Feedly which provides both the feed aggregation service as well as the apps for many popular platforms. At the time of writing it’s free. If you want to try podcasts then iTunes can help or my preferred application across all Apple platforms Instacast

Where is this taking us?

So what is the net result of Google killing Reader? We have some new innovations to a service that I use every day, and I’m very excited to see where this goes!

We already use RSS to access text articles and articles with audio and video embedded. Podcasts are also an area we are seeing development in with good apps and synchronisation services from Apple, Instacast and Downcast. If we could see an arms race anywhere I’d like to see it here: How about new TV episodes delivered automatically to your desktop, phone or tablet? How about a feed reader with a great UI powering TV or movie viewing in the living room? Customisable TV programmes based around your preferences that you discover and curate from multiple sources delivered to all your devices!

Perhaps this is the new Apple TV! Or a way of baking our own?

Further Reading