Requiem for Google Reader, dead for a decade but not forgotten
RSS pioneer Dave Winer sees Mastodon as a positive sign
Special report Ten years ago, on March 13, 2013, Google said it was discontinuing Google Reader, a popular application for reading RSS and Atom feeds.
Google's decision to do so, part of a corporate initiative dubbed "Spring Cleaning," proved vexing enough to prompt a petition to save the application, though to no avail. The web app, launched in 2005, was shut down on July 1, 2013, due to declining use, the company claimed.
Software developer Dave Winer, who was instrumental in the creation and evolution of RSS, told The Register in an interview that Reader's demise wasn't due to RSS.
"At the time, the two founders of the company [Sergey Brin and Larry Page] felt that they had too many products," explained Winer. "And they wanted the company to get rid of some of the products.
"This is a very difficult thing for a company to do because they have users and people build on these products. They build systems out of them and people inside the company use the products. There are all kinds of reasons why once you put a product out there, you have a commitment to keep running it.
"But the founders said, 'No, we don't have that commitment. We're going to learn how to kill products.' And so they went around the company and they said, 'Look, which products should we kill?' The only one any group of people could agree with was Reader. So they said, 'Fine, we're going to delete Reader and we're gonna see what happens.' And that was the end of that."
A decade ago, developer Marco Arment framed the decision as a consequence of the rise of Facebook, which sought to control content on its platform to monetize those viewing it, and of Google's effort to respond with a social network of its own called Google+.
"Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything," Arment wrote.
Using an RSS reader app, internet users can aggregate and curate their own set of content from multiple sources. Social media platforms would prefer to handle the aggregation and curation of content themselves, so they can amass an audience and sell ads.
RSS stands for RDF Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication, or nothing at all, depending upon whom you ask. It's an XML-based format that lets websites syndicate their content by publishing RSS feeds. Individuals or services can then subscribe to any of those feeds to keep informed about newly published content.
In December 1997, Winer started publishing an XML version of his blog, Scripting News. Other websites adopted what was called the <scriptingNews> format. In March 1999, Netscape launched MyNetscape.Com, using an XML syndication format called RSS 0.9. By April, My.UserLand.Com adopted the tech, and the <scriptingNews> 2.0b1 format the following month. By July, Netscape had rolled out RSS 0.91 and My.UserLand.Com supported it.
The spec continued to evolve with RSS 1.0, then later again into Atom, a similar XML-based spec. Atom debuted in 2005, a year after the launch of Facebook.
Between the lack of a unified specification and efforts by Facebook, Google, and others to bring people to a single platform rather than send them away, RSS usage has waned. Mozilla removed RSS support from Firefox in 2018. Apple stopped providing RSS for Apple News in 2019. And in 2021, Google removed RSS feeds from Google Groups.
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Winer gives Google some credit for what the company accomplished with Reader.
"Nobody saw a downside when Google Reader came in," he said. "The truth is that the RSS market was terribly disorganized at the time, and Google did kind of a good thing by organizing it."
However, Winer's appreciation has limits. "Google could have done a much nicer job of taking care of RSS, but they didn't do that," he said. "And they're doing the same thing with the web today. It's incredible. They're doing it to the whole web. They're doing it slowly and they put a lot of hype onto it. They make it sound like they're doing good things. But in fact, what they're doing is they're going to shrink the web down to the part of the web that they can monetize."
Winer added: "It still would have been nice if Google had acted like a good corporate citizen and said, 'Look, we just left a big oil spill here. We understand that and since we're a responsible company, we're gonna help clean it up.' Nothing like that happened."
Yet RSS is still widely used for podcasts and among a technically stubborn segment of internet users. And lately there are signs of renewed interest. Google, of all companies, recently added RSS support to Chrome on Android. And with Twitter under new, contentious management, many users of the bird site have established accounts on the federated Mastodon network, which happens to support RSS feeds.
Winer said Mastodon does a very nice job with RSS, though he's not optimistic about its potential for changing the paradigm that leads to centralized services.
"Mastodon is not for everyone," he said, noting that it isn't sufficiently easy to use. "It suffers from the same problem that RSS suffered. [By comparison] Twitter has absolutely drop-dead simple subscriptions … Why did it never get easy to subscribe to things in RSS? It was because people wouldn't work with each other.
"My feeling is that we still haven't yet solved the problem of how to commoditize Twitter and take it out of the realm of, you know, walled gardens and silos and stuff.
"It's always going to be very hard to get distributed communities to actually happen."
The only thing that makes him optimistic, he said, is that power users tend to find a way out.
"They give you a system that has, you know, training wheels – all the hard stuff is done for you and you trade-off your freedom," he said. "It's always been that way … It may be what this Mastodon thing is all about." ®