First off, I'm sad to see Google Reader is closing up soon (why so soon when other Google apps came with 12-18 months of notice?). I know some people that developed and worked on the product and to this day I use it several times a day to keep up on a few hundred blogs I follow (as well as weirder feed things like like recent comments in specific posts I'm interested in, obscure search results at ebay for items I'm tracking, and of course, mentions of my name or sites across blogs). I use the service almost as much as I use Twitter and it wasn't easy news to take, since I thought it'd always be around like water or electricity, run by the largest technology company on earth. Now I'm left second guessing using any Google product that doesn't clearly carry advertising on it, knowing the plug can be pulled at any time. I thought I'd write up some thoughts below and some quick reviews of alternates in the hopes others in the same boat can figure out what to do next.
Why is RSS interesting?
I admit the world of RSS is a pretty geeky circle to run in (if you know what RSS stands for, you're officially in the club). You've got a mix of web technologists, nerds, and news junkies that are all so busy that they no longer want to browse the web, they'd rather check a stream of updates that were fetched for them. RSS is basically TiVo for the web, and like TiVo in say, the year 1999, only the hardest core nerds are interested in it. Most web users love it and find it useful once you explain how it works (sites publish a file that gets periodically checked and fetched, to be reposted in your client of choice for reading updates) but like TiVo, it's a huge hurdle to get over, to explain to people why this technology is worth it and saves so much time.
Why should anyone care about Google Reader?
Google Reader was the best of breed. It started around 2005 and became one of the first few web-based services for reading RSS. Up until then most people used a desktop app to read RSS feeds from sites, but I personally liked the flexibility of using a web browser on any computer to stay up to date on what I'd read (it's a lot like the old days of POP email, if your unread counts get out of sync across devices, email was harder to use). Around 2007, Google Reader started adding more features and getting easier to use, by 2010 Google Reader was getting fairly amazing, notifying you of new posts within seconds of them going up (relying on the global network of Googlebots scouring the web) and being able to provide feeds for pages without RSS.
My favorite time is around mid-2011, by then Google Reader was fast, easy to use, reliable, available on my mobile devices natively in a browser or also in a client like Reeder, and there was also a hidden social network of other news junkies and nerds. You could share items to the public or just your friends, you could comment on articles just among friends you'd connected with. I used to follow random people I didn't know in any other context but knew them through their amazing shared items. Most all the social stuff was stripped in late 2011 to make way for Google+ share buttons, but they didn't work the same and took your shared items away from Reader into an entirely other site so few people used them.
Google Reader announcing they are going away soon is a huge problem. It means the loss of a beloved app for a lot of nerds and news junkies, including a great number of journalists, not only those working in the technology field. It means a lot of tiny blogs won't get noticed as easily if we won't be able to easily monitor infrequently updated blogs written by experts. I'm convinced we'll see some effects of this closure on journalism, until writers scramble to find alternate ways to monitor thousands of contacts and researchers writing online.
While Google was innovating on Reader from 2005-2013, pretty much every competitor slipped away. Desktop clients were waning, web-based locally hosted readers gave up development as Google surpassed what a few small developers worth of resources could create and eventually many apps simply tied into a centralized Feed API Google launched so you could basically use Google Reader in different clients and interfaces, always keeping your sync/read numbers correct. Recently I noticed quite of lot of filtering has found its way into Google Reader, where I'm only presented with new posts from my most favorite sources at the top when my unread counts are high, which is a nice touch and points to some interesting AI happening in the background to figure those out for me.
The thorny problems of writing your own
Everyone I know is scrambling for alternative services and there are a handful around and many more being built. Seeing these new smaller outfits with their servers being slammed by a few thousand new users indicates just how big and reliable the Google infrastructure behind Reader is. There are a lot of thorny issues to solve for anyone planning to make a successor to Google Reader:
1. The update bot – Google had the advantage of having not only thousands of server farms across the world but many thousands of bots running constantly across millions of sites every day checking for updates. Building a bot isn't the hardest thing in the world, but building one that can quickly scan through hundreds of thousands of sites a day is non-trivial and is a major endeavor. Keeping one running is more than a full time job.
2. Feed APIs – The central brain of any RSS reading app is often available via programming interfaces so your UI can stay in sync with your website view and mobile apps. A lot of current RSS readers rely on the Google Feed API that is likely going away, so it'll be a fairly big project for anyone to rebuild this for their app. I have heard talk of people trying to share resources here, attempting to make a centralized service others can use, but I don't have high hopes of that coming together in the very short time frame we have.
3. Search – I recall someone formerly at Google once telling me that providing custom search across all your feeds was a huge undertaking that basically requires a service to keep a copy of every blog post in every blog ever tracked in the entire system, and provide that indefinitely. I don't use search much in Google Reader but I hear that's a killer feature for many others. The feature obviously ramps up your storage needs for any project.
4. Economics – The toughest problem to solve is in the end, how many people would pay for building and maintaining a service? How many users did Google Reader ever have, and what small number would pay someone else to try and make something as good? This is the tough part and beyond a few thousand nerds, I'm not sure if you can convince a larger casual web audience that your product is worth paying for. A lot of outfits are trying to create magazine-like applications that suggest interesting articles from their system and that may be the way to lure the "normals" to a news reading service, but it's tough to say even after building the immense hardware and software required to run a reader-type app, if it's possible to support more than a tiny team of 2-3 programmers on the revenue from users. That said, I'm actually wary of RSS reading apps that don't charge. I want anything replacing Google Reader to stick around.
Quick reviews of existing readers
Since the announcement, I've been playing with alternatives to Google Reader. I didn't try out any desktop or self-installed applications since I move from computer to computer fairly often and need everything to be centralized and web-based. Here's some quick thoughts on each service currently out there:
Feedbin: This is a nice simple reader interface, clean and doesn't get in the way. I'd describe it as feeling like 2007-era Google Reader before they added social features to the app. It costs $12/yr which is good to hear, but so far I've found myself having to click every headline to see a post, as it doesn't seem to offer the low-friction "river of news" showing all new posts from all the blogs you follow in a single stream that automatically marks themselves as read as you scroll. This also required an uploaded backup of my Google Reader blog list, causing it to think every single blog I follow had all new items. This meant I had to hit "mark as read" for all and start over.
Newsblur: A popular suggested service to me was this one, which is normally free up until I think 100 feeds then it is $24/yr and I saw a $36/yr option for the heaviest users. This service is slammed and took me a day to even sign up, but once on their development server, I was really happy with this. I could import my blogs directly from Google Reader and it maintained read/unread status for me. The feature set is really close to maybe 2010-era Google Reader, with a social component including sharing and comments from friends, but I also noticed comments on posts from random readers which could be kind of annoying. There are some attempts to filter items towards stuff you like most, but so far this one is the big champ for a reader replacement.
Feedly: Feedly is slick looking, but annoying in ways. It requires the use of a Chrome extension in my browser that also inserts a little ghosted share icon/feature into the lower right corner of every web page you view, which bugged me. The default views are trying to look like the Flipboard iPad app, but you can get a Reader-like view if you jump deeper into it. I gave up on this shortly after I imported my blogs from Google Reader as it seemed the service was also built on the Google Feed API and would need to transition off that soon. The service seems free so I'd be wary of jumping on board long-term as a replacement.
The Old Reader: This is something I dabbled with last year and coming back to it again I noticed it's pretty close to the way Google Reader looked and worked in 2010-11. They built it to bring back the sharing and commenting aspects, but the service is fairly slow since the Google Reader announcement and I didn't notice a way to pay for an account, so I'm not sure what the future prospects are for it.
There are a lot more options out there and since I tweeted what was essentially meant as a "I volunteer as Tribute to help build a new RSS reader" I've heard from another half-dozen or so developers and companies working on a Google Reader replacement, so expect to see many more options soon in the coming months.