Google Reader vs "Do No Evil"

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

Today, Google announced that its popular RSS reader, Google Reader, would be retired. This has provoked an outcry from certain corners of the internet, as GReader was a well-loved product. In many ways it was – and still is – the gold standard of RSS readers. It was massively more popular than the alternatives, so much so that many other RSS reader applications added a “sync with Google Reader” option so that the offline application could stay in sync with what the user read on the web in GReader.

A year and a half ago, a similar public outcry met Google’s decision to remove Reader’s sharing feature and instead integrate the “+1” button from its Google+ social network.  The sharing feature was almost a little social network in its own right, just between Reader users who were already “friends” on Google Talk. But Google’s flagging “proper” social network needed those “shares” to drive traffic there, and so sharing within Reader was removed.

We should have seen the writing on the wall then, because the reason the service is being withdrawn is just the same – Google+ offers the ability to read RSS feeds, so by removing Reader they can drive more users to Google+. Why? Because Google+ creates advertising revenue, making Google money. Reader does not.

Never mind the fact that many Reader users explicitly preferred not to use Google+. Never mind that the feed reading UI on Google+ is cluttered with social things, and the management interface significantly worse. The decision to close down Google Reader is justifiable on financial grounds alone.

Does this fall afoul of Google’s “Do No Evil” policy? Possibly not – discontinuing a product that doesn’t make a company enough money is hardly evil – but it certainly serves as a reminder that the Google of today is not Larry Page and Sergey Brin getting together to make cool websites that make people’s lives easier. Google is a massive multinational company and is beholden only to regulators and to its shareholders.

If, one day, they decide it is financially advantageous to roll GMail into its Google+ service, they will do it in a heartbeat.

We all trust a lot of data to companies like Google. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but we must remember that they do not offer us services such as GMail and Google Reader for free out of the goodness of their hearts. They offer them to us because the economics of online advertising mean that they make more profit if the service is free than if it costs money. When those services no longer make a profit, they will very quickly cease to be available.

Centralised “cloud” services have their advantages: they are easy, simple, and social. But they have one big disadvantage: the users will always be completely at the mercy of the service provider.


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