Google Inc. is facing an onslaught of user outrage after killing one of its most beloved – if not hugely popular – services.
Google Reader, a free service that allows users to automatically collect and archive updates from countless websites using an open-source technology called RSS, will be shut down for good as of July 1. Although Google Reader never achieved a critical mass of users, it is widely cited as one of Google's most functional products – a tool that was so finely tuned that it became many users' primary gateway for surfing the Web.
But as useful as it is, Google Reader increasingly became an odd outlier in the company's new, heightened focus on the social Web. As the search engine launched social networks such as Google Plus (a direct Facebook competitor), the decidedly non-social Google Reader found fewer supporters among Google's top management. Besides making virtually no money for the company, Google Reader is also primarily an individual tool, whereas almost all of Google's recent high-profile projects are about sharing via social networks.
"They have a billion users of search every day, how many people logged into Google Reader each day? A couple hundred thousand? A million? It's a rounding error with regards to their other services," said Matthew Haughey, founder of the popular MetaFilter blog and an avid Google Reader user.
"Also," Mr. Haughey added, "there's no advertising on it, no way to make it pay for itself because they didn't do ads like you see in Gmail along the top or sides with context-sensitive pitches.
"It brought in zero revenue and took up engineering resources, I can see now why it's likely going away."
Even if shutting down Google Reader made financial sense, the decision quickly prompted angry users to flood the web with complaints. Some users pointed out that Google Reader's demise is likely a massive, if not fatal, setback to the RSS technology itself, which allows websites to "push" notices to readers when new content is published. One of Google Reader's most frequent users was as an alert system for new posts on infrequently updated sites, saving the user the trouble of constantly checking for updates manually.
Other users pointed out that because Google Reader masks its users' traffic, it was a vital way for activists in repressive regimes (and office workers trying to get around company web-blocking software) to access content.
In less than 24 hours, a petition on the website Change.org to save Google Reader amassed some 70,000 signatures.
"It has clearly just taken off," said Jordy Gold, Change.org's Canadian campaigns director. "If you look at the second comment on the petition page, it's pretty clear: '[Google Reader is] the way I read the Internet.'"
The decision to kill Google Reader comes as part of the company's so-called "Spring Cleaning" effort. Since 2011, Google has periodically shut down various products that fell outside its core business.
"We're living in a new kind of computing environment," Urs Hölzle, Google's senior vice-president of technical infrastructure, wrote in a blog post announcing the impending death of Google Reader. "Everyone has a device, sometimes multiple devices. It's been a long time since we have had this rate of change – it probably hasn't happened since the birth of personal computing 40 years ago. To make the most of these opportunities, we need to focus – otherwise we spread ourselves too thin and lack impact."
Asked for comment, a Google spokesman referred back to the blog post, adding: "We'd like to ensure a smooth transition and are hopeful that the four-month sunset period provides sufficient time for Google Reader users to find the best service for their needs."
Shortly after the Google Reader announcement, users flooded to a variety of other, smaller RSS services, looking for alternatives to what is by far the most popular tool of its kind. However Reader's functionality will be difficult to re-create, in large part because it was powered by Google's massive search and storage infrastructure – something smaller companies simply don't have the resources to build.
"The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized it's a pretty huge endeavour," Mr. Haughey said of creating a Reader substitute. "I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of this. It's been really tough news to take, but hopefully something good comes out of it in the form of other, better apps."