Thursday, 28 March 2013

Thoughts on the demise of Google Reader (and Blogging)

I started blogging in 2004. The ability to add new articles to my website without the laborious task of modifying HTML files and FTPing them up to my webspace was nothing short of magical. Even better was the community that suddenly sprung up around shared interests. If you read something interesting on someone else’s blog, you could comment, but even better, you could write your own post in response, linking to theirs, and a “trackback” would notify them, and a link to your response would appear at the bottom of their post. It was a great way of finding like-minded people.

But spammers quickly put an end to all that, and it wasn’t long before trackbacks were turned off for most blogs. Your only interaction came in the comments, and even that was less than ideal as so few blogs supported notification for comments. Blog posts were no longer conversation starters, they were more like magazine articles.

The next major setback for blogging was twitter. With an even quicker way to get your thoughts out to the world, many bloggers (myself included to be honest) started to neglect their blogs. In one sense, this is no big deal. I’d rather follow many blogs that have infrequent but interesting posts, rather than a few that have loads of posts of low quality. Which is why I love RSS and Google Reader. Some of the people I follow only blog a few times a year. But when they do write something, I know immediately, and can interact with them in the comments.

Now Google Reader is going away and this could be the killer blow for many small, rarely updated blogs. Of my 394 subscribers (according to feedburner), 334 are using Google Reader. I wonder how many I’ll have left after July 1st? Sure, there are a good number of us who are researching alternative products, but there are also many non-technical users of Google Reader. Take my wife for example. She likes and uses Google Reader, but doesn’t really want the hassle of switching and could easily miss the deadline (unless I transfer her subscriptions for her). Her response when I told her Google Reader was being shut down: “Why don’t they shut down Google Plus instead? No one uses that.” My thoughts exactly.

Now it is true that I get a lot more traffic from search engines than I do from subscribers. Google regularly sends people here to look at posts I made five years ago about styling a listbox in Silverlight 2 beta 2. But for me, part of the joy of blogging is interacting with other bloggers and readers about topics you are currently interested in. Without subscribers, you need to not only blog, but announce your every post on all the social networking sites you can access, quite possibly putting off potential readers with your constant self-promoting antics. If you choose not to do this, then you could easily find that no one at all is reading your thoughts. And then you start to question whether there is any point at all in blogging.

Google Reader Alternatives

So what are the options now that Google Reader is going? It does seem that there are a few viable replacement products – feedly and newsblur are rising to the challenge, offering quick ways to import your feeds. Apparently Digg are going to try to build an alternative before the cut-off date. But one thing all these options have in common is that they are scrambling to scale and add features fast enough to meet a very challenging deadline. There is no telling which of them will succeed, or come up with a viable long-term business model (how exactly do the free options plan to finance their service?), or offer the options we need to migrate again if we decide we have made the wrong choice. I could easily still be searching for an alternative long after Google Reader is gone. And then there is the integration with mobile readers. I use Wonder Reader on the Windows Phone. I have no idea whether it will continue to be usable in conjunction any of these new services.

Or I could think outside the box. Could I write my own RSS reader and back-end service in the cloud just for me? Possibly, and I can’t say I haven’t been tempted to try, but I have better things to do with my time. Or how about (as some have apparently already done), giving up altogether on RSS, and just get links from Twitter, or Digg, or from those helpful people who write daily link digests (the Morning Brew is a favourite of mine)? I could, and perhaps I would find some new and cool stuff I wouldn’t have seen in Google Reader. But there is nothing as customised to me as my own hand-selected list of blog subscriptions. There aren’t many people who share my exact mix of interests (programming, theology, football, home studio recording), and it would be a great shame to lose touch with the rarely updated blogs of my friends. And that’s to say nothing of the other uses of RSS such as being notified of new issues raised on my open source projects at CodePlex, or following podcasts. In short, I’m not ready to walk away from RSS subscriptions yet. At least, not until there is something actually better.

What’s Next To Go?

The imminent closure of Google Reader leaves me concerned about two other key components of my blogging experience which are also owned by Google – Feedburner and Blogger (Blogspot). I chose blogger to host this blog as I felt sure that Google would invest heavily in making it the best blogging platform on the internet. They haven’t. I have another blog on WordPress and it is far superior. I’ve been researching various exit strategies for some time (including static blogging options like octopress) but as with RSS feed readers, migrating to an alternative blog provider is not a choice to be taken lightly. Even more concerning is that feedburner was part of my exit strategy – I can use it to make the feed point to any other site easily. If Google ditch that, I’ll lose all my subscribers regardless of what reader they are using. It is rather concerning that Google have the power to deal a near-fatal blow to the entire blogging ecosystem should they wish.

What I’d Like To See

Congratulations if you managed to get this far, and apologies for the gloomy nature of this post so far. So why don’t I end it with a blogging challenge? What I’d like to see is posts from gurus in all things cloud, database, nosql, html5, nodejs, javascript, etc on how they would go about architecting a Google Reader replacement. What existing open source components are ready made building blocks? Would you build it on Azure table storage, or perhaps with RavenDB? How would you efficiently track items read, starred and tagged? What technologies would you use to make a reader interface that works for desktop and mobile? I’m not much of a web developer myself, so I’d love to see some cool open source efforts in this area, even if they are of the self-host variety.

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