Google Reader’s shutdown, the rise of walled gardens and the future of the open web

Oceans of digital ink have been spilled already about the demise of Google’s (s goog) Reader service, with most of the coverage devoted to moaning about the loss of the tech blogosphere’s favorite RSS reader or talking about the pros and cons of various alternatives. But there is a deeper issue at stake that Instapaper founder Marco Arment put his finger on in a post about the Reader shutdown: namely, what Google’s behavior says about its shifting focus, and what that in turn says about the increasingly disconnected and impenetrable platform silos that now make up a majority of the web.
Arment starts with a question that has occurred to just about everyone who has thought about the decision, including Om: Why did the company bother to shut down a service that had a devoted user base (albeit a small one) and likely wasn’t using up much in the way of resources?
One theory is that Reader was just another victim of the kind of housecleaning that has killed off dozens of other Google services over the past year, as CEO Larry Page puts “more wood behind fewer arrows.” Google itself has said that it decided to close the service because usage had been declining — and there’s no question that RSS readers have always been something of a niche product.

Was RSS just too open?

Arment, however, thinks the closure is part of a much larger phenomenon — one that involves a move by Google away from open standards and towards its own closed and proprietary platform, and how that is just part of the closing down of the open web:

“Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started… the battle to own everything. While Google did technically ‘own’ Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.”

In many ways, as Arment points out, RSS is the antithesis of this platform-focused, walled garden approach. Developed by blogging pioneer and open-web advocate Dave Winer, it is about as wide open a technology as you could possibly imagine — and it has unquestionably done more to promote the “democratization of distribution” that Om has written about than just about any other product or service in recent memory.

Starving the open ecosystem

While RSS is not going away, every step that giants like Google take away from that standard makes it harder and harder to build a business or content strategy around it, and that in turn sucks the energy out of the entire ecosystem.
Former Twitter CEO Evan Williams discussed this phenomenon back in 2010 with Om during an interview about the evolution of the web, and talked about how building a business was increasingly about where to “rent” property rather than building a separate island of your own — in other words, piggy-backing on Apple’s iOS or on Facebook or on Google as a way of getting leverage. As he put it:

“Things get consolidated because it’s more economical and there are network effects in all these things. The idea of creating something from scratch, which is independent from the web… no one will ever create something that is wholly their own. There is some risk to the Internet becoming more closed — although it’s not really about closed. It’s that there are fewer players who own, sort of, the land. And that will have implications long term for everything.”

Who will fight for the open web now?

Open sign
The cruel irony, as Arment notes in his post, is that Google and Facebook (s fb) and even Apple (s aapl) wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for open standards and the open web. But now that they have used those standards to develop a dominant platform of some kind, “everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down… get it out of the way so they can get even bigger, and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.”
The Instapaper founder says he is having none of that, and that everyone who cares about the open web should keep building and supporting “new tools, technologies, and platforms to empower independence [and] interoperability.” And it’s worth noting that others are also concerned about the increasing closure of the web, and moving away from open standards — including the web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who has spoken passionately about the silo-ization of the web and what it means, and how we need to fight against it.
One of the depressing things about Google’s move away from RSS and from other open standards is that the search giant used to be one of the few large players on the web that seemed to be strongly in the open and interoperable camp — to the point where it fought a very public war with Facebook over the issue of giving users the ability to export their data. Now it seems there is more interest in duplicating a Facebook-style walled garden than in fighting for the open web.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Jason Parks and Shutterstock / Luis Santos