Tag Archives: Google

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 gmail.com 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.

Lessons from the Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit

A few quick thoughts about the Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit, which I attended last weekend.

Google Summer of Code is a program, run by Google, which encourages open source development by paying college students to undertake summer coding projects with various open source projects. I co-mentored two projects for WordPress, and was one of the lucky few from among WP’s fifteenish mentors to get a trip to the Googleplex in Mountain View.

The Summit was organized as an unconference. On Saturday, attendees proposed session topics on a big scheduling board, and indicated their interest in other suggested sessions with stickers. This being a supremely geeky conference, I didn’t understand about half of the session titles.

A few takeaways, in no particular order:

  • Process matters. A lot. Probably 2/3 of the sessions I attended were devoted to project workflow: version control, code review, various kinds of testing. Probably some of the focus on process is due to the fact that it constitutes common ground between even those individuals whose software projects are quite different from each other. But I think it also speaks to the importance of workflow that really works, especially in the decidedly non-top-down world of open-source development communities.
  • WordPress seems pretty far behind the curve in terms of development infrastructure. Take version control: WordPress is the only project I heard about all weekend that still uses (or is not in the process of moving away from) centralized version control like Subversion. Git seemed like the most popular platform (there was a whole session on migrating massive project repos from SVN to Git, which was probably my favorite session of the weekend). I came away with lots of ideas for how the WP and BuddyPress development processes might be improved (and, more importantly, why it might be worthwhile to pursue these ideas), which I’ll be working on in the upcoming weeks and months.
  • More generally, I came away realizing that WordPress devs (and probably other kinds of devs, but this is what I know!) have a lot to learn from the way that similar software development projects are run. I was part of some extremely interesting conversations with core developers from Drupal and TYPO3 and was really, really impressed with the way the way that their development workflow informs and enables better software. Some WordPress fans have a tendency (sometimes joking, sometimes not) to disparage other projects like this, an attitude that can prevent us from learning a lot from each other. That’s a real shame, and it’s something I’d like to rail against.

I met some great people and learned a lot at the Summit. Many thanks to Google for footing the bill, to WordPress for selecting me to go, and to Stas and Francesco for their cool GSoC projects!

On the cloud

Google freaked out this weekend, which, in turn, freaked me out. I’m a pretty ardent user of Google’s cloud services. Gmail is the most important to me, as it’s where all my email from the past four or five years resides. Reader has streamlined my online reading process so much that’s it’s hard for me to imagine how in the pre-Reader days I managed to read even a tenth of what I get through now. So when Google hiccups – even when the hiccup is apparently unrelated to where I store my data – I get scared.


via Reza Vaziri

These Google fears came just a week after I read Jason Scott‘s delightfully titled “Fuck the Cloud”. I don’t really buy into all the too-simple “you’re a sucker if you use cloud services” rhetoric, and I think (as urged in a Twitter conversation I had with @GeorgeReese) that a lot of what Scott is complaining about is more about backups than it is the cloud. Still, this piece, along with my Google woes, was enough to get me thinking about how wise it is to depend on web services like I do.

My first reaction on Saturday morning, when Google was acting up, was to back my stuff up. I saved all of my Reader subscriptions in a local OPML file, updated my POP3 backups of my Gmail messages in Thunderbird, and saved local copies of my important GDocs. I was able to make these backups because Google has allowed it by embracing the right kinds of standards. And this fact – that backups can be made and exports done – is one of the things that makes me relatively comfortable using Google’s services so extensively.

This relatively straightforward exportability stands in contrast to the situation at some of the other sites where I create and store content. I’ve used Tweetake to export my Twitter activity to a CSV file, but the solution is far from elegant. For one, I don’t really like giving my Twitter password out to a bunch of sites. Also, I’m not crazy about the fact that I can’t really do incremental backups. Ideally Twitter itself would offer some streamlined way to export one’s tweets. Facebook is even worse. I feel uncomfortable using Facebook’s message/email system because I know that there will probably come a day when I want access to those messages but cannot get them.

I don’t necessarily blame Twitter or Facebook for their total failure to provide content exporting. There is a sense in which the kind of content being created in these spaces – or, rather, the meaningful units of content to which we attach value and thus would want to save – is quite different from the most discrete units provided by email. What’s really valuable in Facebook is not just what I write, but what others write to and about me and my friends. Only a total snapshot of my entire immediate network would provide the kind of value for posterity that I want. With Twitter the situation is perhaps even more extreme: like in Facebook, the content I value is closely related to the content created by others, but in Twitter these people are not necessarily part of my immediate network at all (like when you @reply to someone you don’t follow because of some term you’re tracking). Pushed to the limit, you might even say that only a snapshot of all Twitter activity would really capture its value at any given time, since part of the value of Twitter lies in the potential you have to mine the collective consciousness, to get a sense of the zeitgeist. When the content that you value is so holistic, the details of backing it up become dicey.

On a more local scale, it’s probable that standard export formats will emerge as services like Twitter become more popular, in the way that something like Atom or RSS can be used to backup or restore a blog. In this sense, maybe my worries about certain kinds of cloud data storage are the kinds that will go away with time. Or at least until the next new kind of content is invented.

There are some other aspects of the cloud question that I find interesting, such as whether one should really feel more comfortable with local backups than with remote ones, and whether paying for a service really makes it more reasonable to feel comfortable keeping your stuff there, but I’ll save that for another day.