Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

This week, Google announced that it’s shutting down Reader. This is the first of Google’s “sunsets” that hits me personally – Reader has been a crucial part of my internet use for the better part of a decade. I happen to think, like Marco Arment, that in the long run the loss of Google Reader will probably be good for innovation in RSS readers and for RSS in general. Google’s hamstrung app has been just good enough for people like me, but non-approachable for non-geeks. A year from now, I’m hoping that there’ll be many more quality players. So, in the long run, I’m reasonably optimistic.

More immediately, though, a couple of causes for concern:

  1. Finding an alternative to Reader. My RSS reading habits are too ingrained for me to abandon them, even for a short time. More than that: following RSS feeds is beyond mere habit, but is check on my intellectual honesty. I follow many blogs whose authors I frequently disagree with, or even dislike. (Contrast this with Twitter, where I’m pretty fickle about whom I follow, and how many tweets/links I pay attention to.) So RSS is, for me, a partial antidote to the echo chamber tendency. That means that I’ve got to find a new app, and migrate over, and I’ve got to do it quickly.

    There have been a number of posts over the last couple days listing Reader alternatives. A number of them are cloud/service based, and for practical reasons (such as, um, Google Reader) as well as philosophical reasons (see below), I’m only considering alternative tools that I can run either locally or on my own server. A couple that spring to mind:

    • Fever. I’m interested in this one because (a) the screenshots make it look nice, and (b) it comes highly recommended by people I respect, like D’Arcy Norman. I like that it’s self-hosted. I don’t like the fact that its sustainability model is to charge for downloads. It’s not that I don’t think the author shouldn’t be paid – I would be happy to pay $30 or $300 for a great RSS reader app. It’s that the success of the single-developer model is contingent on the willingness of that developer to keep working on the project (paid or otherwise). I’m far more comfortable with software that is community developed under a free license, ideally using a set of technologies that would allow me to modify or even adopt the project if the main devs were to abandon it.
    • Tiny Tiny RSS. tt-rss also comes recommended by someone I respect (Mika Epstein, in this case). And it’s community-developed, which I like. It doesn’t look as pretty as Fever, but aesthetics are about fourth or fifth on my list of requirements.
    • PressForward. As Aram describes, the PF team (of which I’m pleased to be a member) is working on a WordPress-based tool that, among other things, does RSS aggregation and provides some feed-reading capabilities. PressForward is really designed for a different kind of use case – where groups of editors work together to pare down large amounts of feed data into smaller publications – but it could be finagled to be a simple feed reader. Mobile support is a particular pain point, as 50% or more of my RSS intake is done on my phone, and PF has nothing in place to make this possible at the present time. So, PressForward may not be quite ready for primetime, but I do think that it has promise.
  2. Get the hell off of Google. We all know that Google is a company with shareholders and profit goals to meet. Yet we often act like Google is some sort of ambient benevolent force on the web. Since I started Project Reclaim, I’ve been working on extricating myself and my data from the clutches of Google (among other corporate entities). Reader’s demise is a wake-up call that the time for dilly-dallying is over.

    For my own part, I still use a few Google services besides Reader:

    • Gmail. I don’t use Gmail primarily anymore, though many people do still email me at my address, so obviously I have it open and I check it frequently.
    • Picasa. I use the Picasa desktop app on OSX to export photos from my cameras and organize/tag them. I also use Picasa Web Albums as one of my many photo backup services. (Seriously – I back up my photos to no fewer than six different local and cloud services. Nothing is more important or irreplaceable than my family photos.)
    • Drive/Docs. Aside from the occasional one-off collaborations, I use Drive to maintain a number of spreadsheets and other documents that I share with members of my family, etc.
    • Calendar. I’m not a heavy calendar user, but when I do use a calendar, I like Google because of its integration with my Android phone.
    • Chromium. Not Chrome, but still largely Google-reliant, Chromium is not my main browser, but I use it daily for doing various sorts of development testing.
    • Android. This is maybe the one that steams me the most, because at the moment there are no truly free alternatives. (Firefox OS, please hurry up.)

    In some of these cases, there are easy ways to get off of the Google services. In others, it’ll be a challenge to find alternatives that provide the same functionality. In any case, the Reader slaughter is a harsh reminder that Project Reclaim has stagnated too long with respect to Google services.

    More than myself, I’m worried about others – those who aren’t as technically inclined as I am, or those who simply don’t care as much as I do. Google’s made it pretty clear (as is their right, I guess) that they’re not an ambient benevolence. Those who rely on Google then, especially for critical services like email, should take this warning very seriously. Please consider carefully what you’re doing when you make yourself wholly dependent on the whim’s of Google’s product managers, and consider options that are either free-as-in-speech, or services that you pay for in a traditional way.

17 thoughts on “Doom and gloom upon the offing of Google Reader

  1. dnorman

    yeah. the single-developer thing is a risk. but, worst case scenario and Shaun decides to abandon Fever, I still have the thing on my own server. and it’s just php, so I could keep it going. and a community of users would come together to keep the app going. not a huge risk. I’m more concerned about the company that builds my bike ride tracking app for iOS might close shop. I have so much data in there, and it’s not portable. RSS is easy to move around. low threshold, low risk. portable.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      D’Arcy – I’m not sure about the “community of users” bit. I looked around the Fever site to find licence information, and couldn’t find any. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’d say that its current license doesn’t allow you to continue the project in a community way like that. But your point is well taken that RSS reader “data”, such as it is, is not as important to “reclaim” as, say, your photos, because you can theoretically move over to another reader without losing anything as long as they all support OPML import/export.

  2. modemlooper

    I started using ownCloud but the current version is almost unusable. The many plugins that extend it are broken

  3. modemlooper

    at one point, when I couldn’t get owncloud to install on my server I wanted to create a plugin for WP to function the same, hmmm

  4. llamamanryns

    I am so tightly-integrated with Google products that it makes me sick. They are just so damn easy to get up-and-running, and they have lots of nice functionality.

    Project Reclaim is an inspiring concept. I suppose it’s a little-by-little thing – maybe I can get off of Google Calendar this year…Gmail next year…

    At present, if Google started charging for their services, I would have no choice but to pony up and pay them for Gmail, Calendar, and, maybe, docs. That’s a scary thought.

    Prioritizing seems the best path forward in the sense that it would be nice to own my data (and cut the Google cord) on services that are critical to my biz. I know that Google isn’t the only culprit here, but they sure are a behemoth!

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Toby (or should I say llamamanryns? I think I detect a new internet handle…) – Thanks for the comment. I think that your one-step-at-a-time strategy is exactly the right one. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the Reclaim project in general if you start to think of it as all-or-nothing.

  5. Tim Owens

    I’m working through a similar list of Google services and I’m really glad for the wake up call because it was a kick in the pants to the half-hearted attempts at “reclaiming” I’ve done in the past. I was using ownCloud already and doing a few other small things with photos on my blog, but still relying heavily on Google. I know I’ll give up some functionality but unless it’s mission critical features (which usually I don’t have very specific needs that I can’t find workarounds for) I’m moving off their products completely. Here’s what I have so far:

    Gmail –> Hosted IMAP email and contacts. Forwarding gmail address here and updating services and users to knew address tied to my domain as they come in. This will be a slow continual process but I haven’t been in Gmail since I backed it up and moved.

    Google Reader –> Fever. It works well and I share D’Arcy’s sentiment that if Shaun drops the project he’d either open source it or others would come behind him and any service is just an OPML file away from being used so migrating is easy peasy.

    Google Docs –> This one is hard. For raw storage I was already using ownCloud as a Dropbox replacement and I really like that (despite the few bugs there’s plenty of support around it). For collaborative editing there’s not much out there. I’m setting up Etherpad-lite right now which will probably suit most of my needs. It won’t do spreadsheets, presentations or half the fancy stuff Gdocs has, but most of that I don’t use anyway. I’ll keep my account open on Gdocs for people who share stuff with me but for the things I create and work with people on I’m hoping I can use my self-hosted etherpad install as a way to get at that.

    Google Groups –> Sadly no way to go about this. You have to use a Google account as best I can see to be a part of a Google Group and there are 2 that I follow. It’s not major and if it went away I wouldn’t sweat it, but it makes it a bit more of a pain because while I can consume from the forwarded emails I get from Gmail, I can participate back without going to the site. If anyone knows how to use a non-Google email with a Google Group I’d be pleased to know.

    Google Calendar –> I never used my personal one but I have one or two that are shared to feed into websites for event scheduling. Haven’t looked into my options yet but I’m guessing there’s some decent CalDAV-supported self-hosted options out there (I hope?)

    That’s surprisingly it for me. I’m not going to worry about services like Search that I take advantage of because again, if that ever goes away we’ll all move to something else. I’m only focusing on where I store and use my data. I’m interested on your take on Android and why you say it isn’t “truly free”. Can you expand on that a bit in comparison to Firefox OS?

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Tim – Thanks for this awesome list. It’s given me some good ideas for how I might move forward with some reclaiming of my own.

      As for Android: From everything I understand, management of the Android platform keeps getting moved more and more behind impervious walls at Google. Plus they’ve pretty much allowed carriers to do whatever kind of bullshit, closed variants that they want using Android as a base, so that stock Android might be “open” (fwiw) but whatever’s running on your phone probably is not. So maybe I’d be more correct to be angry with carriers about Android than with Google (and, don’t get me wrong, I think that cell phone carriers are pretty much the worst companies in the world). As far as Android is concerned, though, the very fact that it’s controlled by the clearly capricious Google overlords is reason enough to want to abandon it in favor of an alternative shepherded by an organization, like Mozilla, that legitimately cares about free software and the rights of users.

      1. Tim Owens

        Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts about Android. I’ve used an iPhone for several years but the OS and Hardware in the Android world is catching up enough to where I’ll actually be looking at it this time around (waiting for Google IO since the Samsung announcement was laughably bad, hoping good things for the Nexus line). The only thing is I’m not sure Mozilla is going to accomplish much better. We can be certain their goals are a bit more pure than Google, who wants as much of our data as possible. But when we talk about cell phones I don’t see how Firefox is going to overcome carrier restrictions. Maybe they’ll be more successful with selling unlocked phones outright with a pure OS, which I could get behind. But Google had little luck trying that so I wonder.

  6. Jess

    I guess all intelligent developers/users can do a great service to people/friends/family by teaching to ask the fundamental question “Is MY data portable?” and making providers responsible for that as a basic part of a service.

    The evil of a provider becomes more apparent if data is not provided in an open or convertible format. “Software as a Service” has really been sortof around for a while in the form of the hosting & ISP business. Now it’s time for data ownership to become a standard part common knowledge.

    Web creators understand moving things between service providers. It’s the public that’s just beginning to understand. As mentioned, Google does OK in this regard, but providers won’t start doing better until we hold them to this task. I guess we’re missing more understandable formats like HTML, protocols like IMAP, etc.

    It will become more sad as more services appear and our LOL-cats become locked away in binary prisons that we’ve gleeful click-locked ourselves into.

    Thanks for more examples to free ourselves from google’s reader clutches.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Jess – Thanks for the comment. I agree that, as far SaaS providers are concerned, Google actually does pretty well with conforming to standards and allowing for exportability/portability. But it’s worth noting that, while the fact that Google has Takeout and the Data Liberation stuff is nice, it’s still pretty shitty to just discontinue tools. Even if I can take my data with me, I lose all of the energy I’ve put into learning their platform, fitting it into my workflow and my overall ecosystem, etc. So it’s about more than just data.

      But you’re right that data is the most important point, and I love your point that we (the ones geeky enough to be thinking about this stuff) should be demanding at least minimum data portability from our service providers, in hopes that the benefits will trickle down to all users.

  7. Peter Knight

    I actually got off google reader a number of months ago to reduce my google footprint. It’s very hard to avoid using google services. I’m using RSSowl now, it’s nothing fancy looking and it is a old fashioned desktop software but it gets the job done.

    What would excite me is a really good plug computer with strong selfhosted applications for email, rss reading etc. Something somewhat like the direction Tonido has gone in.


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