Clay Allsopp

Google Reader: Product vs. Symbol

Mar 15, 2013

Google Reader, the product, died and should serve as a lesson in missed opportunities. But the loss of Google Reader, the symbol, should be grieved for and contemplated with many furrowed eyebrows.

Google Reader came out in 2005, before the iPhone, Android, and the ubiquity of smartphones. Before Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It had a half-decade head start on Flipboard and Prismatic.

But it became a dinosaur. It was a desktop web product living in an age where we consume our content leaning around at bus stops or looking busy at awkward parties. Apps like Reeder and Press took the charge on nailing the user experience of reading feeds on-the-go; they grew, evolved, and established brands independent of and stronger than Google Reader. And they will live on after Reader's final breath.

Then came Flipboard, Prismatic, and all the other content discovery platforms that became smarter than just Google Reader in lipstick. They have impeccable design, strong brands, and are mainstream "things" in a way Google Reader never was (maybe partly due to Apple's high visibility endorsements). Despite building on top of the exact same web feed technologies as Reader, they created better browsing and recommendation experiences across the web, mobile, and the newborn content-havens of tablets.

Google Reader, the product, seems to be a textbook example of how an incumbent failed to head where the puck was going. But maybe where the puck went really isn't so great.

Google Reader is a symbol of a time just before the Yet-Another Rise Of The Wall Gardens; when the web looked to be on the verge of more semantic and open rather than proprietary; where information was becoming easily accessible and machine-readable instead of more locked up and fragmented.

Today, news and blog content is relatively open and parseable because of RSS and Google Reader's leverage, but all the recent social information about ourselves is locked behind protocols unique to each website and app. Google Reader did some damage to this cause of "openness", but it should remind us of a time before Twitter and Facebook swallowed our capacity for consumption and threw away the key.

I get why Google finally killed Reader. It was essentially free infrastructure and storage for an ecosystem of apps that generated more value (both financial and intangible) than the product itself. Google shouldn't be in the business of doing non-business, and it makes sense to turn off the lights. But it's another sign that we've entered a darker timeline in the history of the net, where information is becoming even more closed and out of reach.

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