April 9, 2013

GUEST ROOM: News Withdrawal: The Demise of Google Reader

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Life is complicated. As Cornell students, we all have busy lives. I’m a Ph.D. student in engineering, and my schedule is always packed with research, teaching, writing and meetings, not to mention my non-academic pursuits. So when something comes along that simplifies life — something that shakes the world, filtering out the things that are truly important to me — I bite. I try it out and sometimes, I get to like it. And if it’s something that I really like, I become dependent on it. Over the past seven years, I’ve become addicted to Google Reader. It scours the Internet and feeds me the stories I’m most interested in, whether it’s an article about how Facebook’s API is changing or about how the New York Giants’ roster will change in the off-season.

Imagine my disbelief then, when one day I loaded it and was greeted with the message, “Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013.”

Yes, Google announced last week that Reader, the hugely popular web platform that aggregates stories via the ubiquitous RSS web format, will be going offline. This has prompted public outcry fueled by many like me who swore by it. People loved Reader for its superb functionality and its minimalistic interface. A 2012 LifeHacker poll suggested that RSS junkies rated Reader as the best platform for web feeds, winning out over competitors like Apple’s Reeder and Feedly.

So why is Reader shutting down? If it has such great traction and is so wildly popular, how can Google possibly even consider closing the service?

Google’s public answer is that Reader infringes on the privacy of its users. Like other tech corporations, Google has had serious issues related to user privacy brought up by technology regulators and policymakers. Reporting for AllThingsD, Liz Gannes writes:

“[T]he shutdown wasn’t just a matter of company culture and bigger priorities … Google is also trying to better orient itself so that it stops getting into trouble with repeated missteps around compliance issues, particularly privacy.”

Those words — compliance and privacy — are the ultimate scourges of any tech lawyer. But is Google really just taking Reader offline because they’re concerned about ensuring the integrity of user information? In short, the answer is a resounding “no.” Privacy problems are costly for a company like Google, who recently coughed up $7 million to settle claims that Street View cars were violating privacy. To navigate matters like this, Google employs an army of highly-skilled tech lawyers — not a cheap thing to do. The legal team has to be on the ball at all times, mitigating mishaps, battling ongoing cases in the courts, anticipating future risks and configuring a risk-managed business strategy.

Meanwhile, Google’s business folks are primarily concerned about making a penny off of Reader. As a publicly traded company, they need to ensure shareholder profit. If the opportunity for future monetization doesn’t exist for a product, then Google won’t invest much in it. The payoffs for providing a service like Google search or Gmail come from targeted advertising. That entails using data analytics to infer user interests, preferences and beliefs, and then providing the framework for an advertising market so that third parties can target subsets of the user population in ad campaigns. Somewhere along the line — presumably, after extrapolating the economics of that market framework into the future, and after studying compliance law closely — Google decided that keeping Reader online does not make business sense.

However, there’s a sentiment among Reader users, including me, that despite Reader’s difficult avenue to monetization, Google should still provide the service. After all, it wasn’t always a $100 billion company. Would continuing to provide Reader without a monetization mechanism really hurt Google all that much in the long-run, especially when Reader gives people so much utility? An article in the Economist suggests that the infrastructure required to provide Reader is so cheap that it should be provided free of ads. Critics have also taken to Twitter: “‘Usage of Google Reader has declined’ = tons of people using it for sync, but we can’t put ads in that,” and “Google’s Q4 profit was only $2.89bn so of course they need to trim some fat and close Google Reader,” write @ttscoff and @peterc.

In the end, the demise of Google Reader teaches us a valuable lesson: We must not blindly trust that tech companies provide their services strictly for the benefit of their users. If there is no view to monetization, then a product will eventually close shop and cause grief for millions. Choosing tech services with this in mind can save endless time and effort. Just ask the millions of entrenched users who now need to switch to a new platform and rebuild their feeds from the bottom up.our diverse identities. As James Baldwin said, “It is the failure to care that lies at the core of this system of control and every caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.”

Dipayan Ghosh is a third year PhD. in the College of Engineering. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Dipayan Ghosh