Google loved Orkut more than Reader and other myths debunked

When Google announced its shutdown of Reader two weeks ago, it led to an outpouring of emotion few could have predicted. Amid the anguish were some healthy conversations about Reader, Google, and RSS, but the process also gave rise to a number of myths and assumptions that deserve a second look.

Myth: Google could have sold or open-sourced Reader

Reality: De-tangling Reader from Google’s infrastructure was just not worth the effort.
With companies like Digg declaring they will build an alternative, you have to wonder if Google could have salvaged its goodwill among Reader fans by spinning it off. After all, the company is frugal by its own admission, so an “exit with benefits” would have to be more appealing than an outright shutdown. It wouldn’t be the first time either, as SketchUp was spun off last year. The difference is that SketchUp sold for a lot more than Reader probably would, if rumors of $90 million are to be believed.
Where SketchUp was a desktop app and a recent acquisition, Reader is a relatively old web service, one we can assume is deeply ingrained in Google’s systems. This would include services like login and the fundamental feed crawling that would be difficult to detangle into a standalone, open-source product. Exporting all that data to another company would again open the company up to more legal and privacy risks than it presumably would care to deal with. It’s possible users would have to explicitly agree to the arrangement, which would damage the value of the deal, and it’s also possible Google would be lambasted if it chose the “wrong company” and would be blamed for any subsequent mishandling of Reader.
Instead, Google has provided the alternative of a straightforward data export, meaning users can migrate to other services in a matter of minutes. If the primary reason to sell would be goodwill among users, the data export probably serves that purpose better.

Myth: Google cares more about Orkut than Reader

Reality: Orkut is on the way out too.

“We need to focus. Keep the self-driving cars, magic glasses, laptop, handheld OS, and Brazilian social network. Ditch the feed reader.”
Pinboard (@Pinboard) March 14, 2013

Four-thousand retweets can’t be wrong, right? Surely if Orkut is still alive and kicking, then Google must care more about that nine-year-old social network that never took over the world, but somehow gained a foothold in Brazil. The reality is that Reader was purged as part of an overall “spring cleaning” effort that began a few months after Larry Page took the reins in 2011, promising “more wood behind fewer arrows.” If you think Orkut doesn’t fit into that pithy worldview, you’re probably right, and Google probably does want to shut it down. It’s just a matter of timing and shutting things down in the right sequence, as you can’t just pull the plug on a large product overnight.
Another issue is that Orkut, in particular, is sensitive, as it’s the closest thing in Google’s catalog to Plus. Google’s already closed down other social products – Wave, Jaiku, and Buzz – so there’s still a perception that Plus is “yet another experiment” Google will probably tear down in a year or two. In fact, Plus is different because it’s a social layer on all of Google’s products. Google wants it to be your online identity, used when leaving Play store reviews, YouTube comments, or Spreadsheet edits. But until Plus earns users’ trust, many will continue to anticipate a shutdown and be cautious about embracing it, which may explain why Orkut has outlived Reader and many other defunct products.
As for self-driving cars and magic glasses, they emerged as part of Google’s forward-looking X Lab. Google’s new focus doesn’t rule it out from its tradition of experimenting with new products; it just makes sure that products either evolve or die. Moving sideways is not an option. So while its tempting to lump Google’s more exotic services together, it really makes more sense to think of Google’s portfolio as having three buckets: legacy, experimental, and core.

Myth: This is really about content lock-in

Reality: This is about scale.
To many mourning the loss of Reader, RSS symbolises freedom. Anyone with a web server can set up as a publisher and syndicate to readers who care enough to subscribe to the feed. If Google moves to a world of curated news like Currents, there’s a risk that freedom is lost, cutting off the long tail and making it hard for readers to get the news that matters to them. This is a realistic concern and one Google will have to address.
However, it shouldn’t be confused with a conspiracy against all things RSS. Google provided a pretty good product for eight years, but it only enjoyed a luke-warm reception at a time when Facebook and Twitter were growing exponentially. Flipboard, likewise, is on a path towards mainstream adoption, which Reader simply never achieved. So it doesn’t take a lock-in motive to explain the move toward a world of Plus and Currents – just a recognition that while Reader served millions of users admirably, Google is more interested in going after billions.

Myth: Google is destroying the RSS ecosystem

Reality: This is a net positive for the RSS ecosystem.
Google’s move is a double-edged sword for RSS. On the one hand, Reader was such a big part of the ecosystem that it held the standard together in many ways. As long as Reader could parse a feed, the publisher could find an audience. (And even get a reasonable measure of the audience just by tracking audience numbers on Reader.)
However, Reader also choked the field of innovation. It’s hard for niche products to find an audience when the elephant in the room is busy providing a free service. And this was not a service that was actively improving. As Reader’s former manager has famously pointed out, management has been trying to pull engineers away from the project since 2008 and decided to kill it in 2010. Better for third-parties who care about RSS to pick up the reigns.
And pick up the reigns they have. Some 500,000 people migrated to Feedly in the 48 hours after Google’s announcement. Digg’s upcoming implementation are in direct response to this announcement. Sites like ReplaceReader have been busy documenting dozens of Reader alternatives that are gaining traction right now. So we are starting to see companies innovating in a space that might otherwise have dwindled.
“RSS is dead” memes are about as old as RSS itself. The standard remains tenuous. But with Reader out of the way, and under the guardianship of companies that care deeply about its values, the RSS model has the best chance in years to flourish and gain new users.
Michael Mahemoff previously worked at Google and is founder of cloud podcasting service Follow him on Twitter @mahemoff.
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