Since Google’s announcement that it was pulling the plug on Google Reader, the internet has been bubbling over with outcry at its demise, petitions to bring it back, and the usual indignation. It’s strange that people are still so attached to something that hasn’t really changed since it launched in 2005. How many other web-based products are you using that can claim the same (other than maybe Gmail, and even with that, there’s arguably been significant innovation)?
The reality is that Google Reader is like a car with a manual transmission. At some point in the beginning of the automotive era, most people drove a manual car and thought it was the bee’s knees. But technology was gradually developed that sacrificed control for comfort — first the automatic transmission, then the self-parking and crash-avoidance systems, and, in the near future, the self-driving car. The manual gearbox is now reserved for the rare auto-enthusiast, and even for their racing and autocross pursuits, new specialized automatic gearboxes perform better than manuals.
If you think about it, RSS underwent the same evolution — or lack thereof. In the beginning, when Google Reader was first released, it was the best way to stay on top of a lot of feeds without having to spend time visiting a multitude of sites. Sure, it was a little unwieldy, and as the amount of content on the web grew, you had to either confine yourself to a small number of sources or risk going overboard and staring at “1000+ unread items” each day. Still, for a while, it was workable.
Then the social Web came about. Suddenly we had an automatic transmission: We could follow interesting people and curated feeds. It became much less work to keep up with news, articles, and events, along with the additional benefits of being able to interact with others around the content you were reading. At that point, RSS lost a big chunk of its appeal to the average user (Robert Scoble thinks that this is when it died).
A year or two later, we’ve got the equivalent of the self-parking/crash-avoidance technology with new mobile curators like Flipboard, Currents and Pulse — not significantly better than what we’ve been using, but still nice. RSS lost some more hold-outs.
Now, finally, we have a self-driving car — services that use artificial intelligence to learn your interests and find the best content for you, filtering out the noise from all of your social feeds and finding content that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. We’re still in the infancy of this technology. Although it’s already a huge leap beyond manually curated content, there are still many kinks to work out to make it as good as it can be. But at least, unlike with Google Reader, there is infinite room to innovate.
The thing is, even with the roads full of self-driving vehicles, there will always be people who enjoy the control of the manual transmission – some because they don’t trust the algorithms to do a better job than they can, others because they have an urge to look at every headline from their favorite source. Whatever the reason, there is a certain pleasure in knowing exactly what to expect and understanding how the system works that is undeniably hard to give up.
That’s ultimately why shutting down Google Reader is a bad move for Google. The enthusiasts aren’t a group we want to alienate. They’re passionate about the products they use, and the lost good will is not worth the savings in resources or focus from shutting down Reader. These long-time loyalists are certainly not going to migrate into Google+ or Currents, if that was Google’s intention. They’ll just find another car with a manual transmission.