Google Reader

There are many reactions over the web right now regarding Google's plans to retire their popular RSS reader. These reactions wouldn't be even visible to me if I couldn't see them in a news aggregator. It's somehow strange to read on the Reader that Reader won't read anymore. That's one of those more impressive titles you go through when you have hundreds, so you can't miss it.

The beauty of the Reader is that all kinds of information come directly to you the minute they get published. Everything is centralized, so you don't have to type hundreds of URLs just to reach this information. You look only at a stack of chronologically ordered titles and decide according to their relative importance which ones deserve more of your time. When you click on an interesting title, you can see the whole article behind it exactly where you are. This won't work only if that content provider wants to retain full control of their content. Then you'll have to visit their website for every single title they post in order to learn more, which limits the usefulness of RSS. Every site owner tries to strike some kind of balance between providing a convenient access to the content while not losing the uniqueness of a website. On a higher level, the Reader just sums up everyone's choices.

Facebook, Google+ and Twitter streams can hardly replace the content richness of an RSS feed. They usually provide links that lead elsewhere or media that lacks context and depth. They also aren't distraction-free as they show us a lot of visuals that aren't related to what we currently read. They weren't specifically made for readers, but for short, quick interactions with other people and for content sharing. Some people recommended Pulse and Feedly as replacements, but if you read a lot, you'll see how they will significantly slow you down. They also might have scaling issues if too many people suddenly decide to switch to them, which will make them even slower, considering that they don't have the Google's infrastructure.

The infrastructure costs, the development time spent and the low ROI are said to be some of the factors behind Google's decision to shut down Reader. If we assume that the average RSS feed has 20 articles, and a person is subscribed to 300 feeds, this would mean that the software has to keep track and preload at least 6000 articles per user. If we multiply this number by just a couple of millions users and then once again by the average byte length of every RSS item (with the article length making potentially the highest percentage of it), we can quickly see where that leads us. We must also account for the fact that Google keeps a long history of older articles, so that even if our Internet connection is down, we can still read them and the program will remember that and synchronize with the server when we are back online. Because every article we click on is marked in gray and remembered for us, we can be sure not to lose our last position. The fast infinite scrolling not only doesn't make the app unresponsive, but allows us to go through lots of content faster than ever before.

Because of this scale, Google Reader is the de facto research tool for identifying trends early and a very important learning tool that advances everyone's knowledge and skills, regardless of age, gender, religion or nationality. Surprisingly, in some areas of the world, where content is censored, people say to rely on the Reader to access information they otherwise can't obtain. Even if this app doesn't directly make profit, its intangible value could be much bigger than most people imagine.

I'm not saying that the app is perfect. For instance, I always find myself reading older articles first before I go to the latest ones. Sometimes, there are a series of articles and you don't want to read something that you wouldn't be able to fully understand or put in context. So I have to scroll first down and then read articles in the upper direction, which is a bit counterintuitive to me. I also sometimes read an article that has a link to another site, which has a feed that I decide to add. But when I do that, the article I was last on is lost, because the page has reloaded and I can only see the latest articles. So I have to scroll down again and seek which article was marked in gray. But these are tiny problems for what is a free app.

Most people claim that the Reader hasn't really improved since 2011. I can't really confirm this, but I noticed that the infinite scrolling works faster and faster for me. I'm not sure if this has to do with the decreased load on the server (Google reported decreased interest in the app), but to me the speedup is very real as I had the opportunity to observe it over time.

How can Google kill the RSS? RSS is based on XML and this is a very flexible format for transferring data between applications. On the minus side, it isn't very lightweight, which might be a problem for large scale applications where data needs to be parsed and traversed. The most what specifications can do is to consider making every RSS item or Atom entry as lightweight as possible, because these are the elements that are repeated millions of times on the web and their content value:metadata ratio must be as high as possible to minimize computing time and infrastructure costs.

If the Google Reader disappears, we'll be forced to seek alternatives, but this will temporarily mean consuming less content. Meanwhile, if you like the Reader too much, consider signing the petition, if you haven't already done so.