SPRING cleaning has a lot to commend it. But when Google announced that it is binning its Reader, which aggregates information from websites’ news feeds, tech types around the world erupted in righteous fury. Many websites which have come to depend on the service to power their news feeds now fret that Google’s decision will cost them millions of readers—and with that lots of advertising revenue. Users, meanwhile, worry about impending newslessness.
Google launched Reader in 2005. By offering it to users for free, it undercut, and ultimately eliminated, all substantial competitors in the news-aggregation business. The few that remained began requiring a Google Reader account and used the search giant’s service to handle synchronisation of feeds among a user’s mobile and desktop devices. At the time, the servers and storage required might have cost millions of dollars a year, posing a high barrier to entry.
Google Reader relies on news-syndication technology collectively called “RSS”, even though there are in fact four rival formats (three types of RSS and one called Atom). In the late 1990s “push” news services used dedicated servers to collect information from news websites and push updates to specialised software on users’ computers. This overtaxed the early internet, as hundreds or thousands of people on a single network or internet service provider would each receive a separate hunk of data with every update. Push was quickly banned and more or less died in 1999.
RSS gets round this problem by letting users pick what news they want to get. A user subscribes to an RSS feed by adding it to a list in so-called newsreader software, which includes mobile and desktop programs and web apps like Google Reader. Publishers automatically update syndication files (often in all four popular formats) on their websites whenever they create or update an item of content. Software on a user’s computer “polls” to see if changes were made, pulls the RSS file, compares it against the previously retrieved copy, and highlights any changes. (Since the feeding website has no information about the subscriber, unsubscribing too is hassle-free; when a user removes the feed from his list, the website can no longer pester him.)
Google (and other aggregators of the day) made the process more efficient for publishers by reducing the number of requests for the RSS file. If a million Reader users subscribed to the New York Times main feed, Google only had to make a single query to retrieve the file. Google Reader users would receive the changed Times stories the next time they logged into Google’s site or refreshed stories in software that relied on Reader for updates. This shifted the burden of a million queries from the Times to Google, and made Google the nexus for updates. (Google also solved a host of technical problems ensuring that Reader offered a smooth experience.)
Tens of millions of internet users embraced RSS feeds via Google Reader and other software that mostly relies upon the search giant’s news-aggregating engine. That may sound a lot, but it pales into insignificance next to the more than a billion who get their fix of news via Twitter or Facebook, not to mention e-mail. Still, Brent Simmons, who developed a popular news-feed reader called NetNewsWire, notes that in contrast to Twitter and other services, RSS links users and websites directly through a distributed network without intermediaries. No central authority dictates how feeds are displayed, decides whether to include ads, or shuts down a feed (unless the news provider goes under). Dave Winer, responsible for developing the first widespread RSS format and popularising it, worried in a blog that Google did too effective a job at making its Reader synonymous with RSS, and its exit may kill the format’s effectiveness.
Others are more sanguine. Marco Arment, the owner of Instapaper, a service which lets readers save articles for later, ad-free perusing, wrote in a blog that Google’s exit may create room for new ideas. The firm’s dominance discouraged entrepreneurs from entering the market, and venture capitalists from supporting those that wanted to take on the web giant. With Google gone, this is bound to change.
However, a number of developers and software firms immediately issued plans to help users transfer to alternative services. One popular idea is to reverse engineer Google’s developer interface in such a way that existing user software will still work. Thanks to virtual servers and cloud storage at Amazon, Rackspace and others, the cost of setting up a news aggregator has fallen to a few thousand dollars a year. The gap left by Google will not take long to brim with hopeful upstarts.