Google announced recently that they plan to close Google Reader on 1 July. Google Reader is a service that allows users to subscribe to feeds published by websites, blogs, news sites, etc. so as to read articles and be notified of updates from those sites all in one place. RSS feeds had been around for some time, and there were plenty of desktop applications that allowed people to subscribe to them, but the beauty of Google Reader was that it was web-based, so not only accessible from anywhere but always up-to-date irrespective of which browser or even mobile device it was accessed from. The advantages of Reader over a stand-alone feed reader are the same as the advantages of, say, Gmail over a traditional desktop e-mail client.
The beauty of using RSS feeds to keep up-to-date with content is that it removes the need to visit dozens of websites each day to check for new postings. This isn’t limited to blogs: photo galleries and discussion forums often have feeds containing new content, and it’s even possible to follow people’s public Facebook walls via RSS (although finding the feed URL in the first place isn’t always straightforward). Until this month, it was also possible to follow a Twitter account through RSS, but that has sadly been switced off as part of Twitter’s new API policies. Twitter have disabled feeds becasue they want people to use their own site and mechanism for following someone instead. It forces people into the Twitter ecosystem. And if someone wants to follow a blog or photo gallery for updates, then unless the owner happens to tweet about it, you are out of luck.
Similarly, Google’s decision to scrap Reader is a result of their desire to force people to use their Google+ social network. Reader wasn’t helping Google to build their rival to Facebook, so they closed it. However, I do not believe Facebook or Google+ are a suitable alternative to Reader at all. The idea of social networking sites is that you follow people, and they can recommend articles that you might like to read. That isn’t the same as following a particular site that you are interested in. What if your Facebook “friend” never recommends another article from the same site? You may have enjoyed reading an article immensely, but becasue you can’t subscribe to it and have to rely on a friend recommending it, you may never catch any more articles from there. You could bookmark it, but then we are back to visiting dozens of websites manually each day. It is possible to follow a page for a website, service, person, etc. on Facebook or Google+, but that requires the author to produce content specifically tailored to those sites, whereas it would be much simpler to use an open standard such as RSS to allow people to follow you using whatever application or website they wished.
Some people are claiming Google Reader was all about sharing, and that this is still possible via Google+. That was the argument Google themselves used in 2011 when they scrapped most of the sharing tools built into Google Reader. However, what will be missing is part of the core functionality of Reader: the ability to follow any feed and be notified of updates. After all, if everyone just relies on recommendations of what to read from other users, and no users can receive feeds of new articles, how will anyone ever see any new content? If Google really want people to use Google+, why don’t they allow people to subscribe to RSS feeds and view them in their Google+ stream? Allowing people only to view posts shared by friends or content posted specifically to Google+ is such a poor substitute it’s practically useless, and I hope Google+ doesn’t gain any significant extra use as a result of this decision. A former Google employee has even written about how Google+ has killed Google Reader.
There are a number of alternatives to Google Reader, although they each have their own shortcomings, in particular their inability to handle the large influx of new users looking to migrate from Google Reader at the moment. At present my favourite solution is Blogtrottr. Rather than provide an interface of its own, it simply e-mails any new articles to you. That means I could soon be reading all my subscribed content from within none other than Google’s own Gmail service! As I don’t require any extra fancy features, this suits me quite well, and it’s a big advantage to have e-mails and articles all in one place. But I may yet find another, better, solution.
I’ll finish with a comment Google Reader creator Chris Wetherell made in 2011, on Google’s effort to make Google+ a clone of Facebook, using the analogy of Apple’s successful product line that many others have failed to copy:
But what if the thing you’re driving everyone toward isn’t the iPod but is instead the Zune?