It's been a month since Google Reader shut down, breaking users' hearts and bringing an end to a nearly eight-year run of RSS dominance. As soon as word came of Reader's impending doom, third parties like Digg, Feedly, and others sprung into action, eager to replace the old guard. At the time, they looked like a rescue team, gallantly swooping in to save us from regular old web browsing. But after a month, the squad of reader replacements has turned into a set of regular products trying to keep up with user demands. So how well have these replacements done in Google Reader’s absence?
It turns out it's hard to make an RSS reader. Feedly switched over to its own servers with just a few weeks to spare and Digg launched mere days before Reader's lights-out. Newsblur had been running since 2009, but faced a flood of traffic after Google announced the reader shutdown, and founder Samuel Clay describes pulling 14-hour days for months just to keep the site loading in under 100 milliseconds.
fourteen-hour days for months just to keep the site loading
The replacement that fared worst was the Old Reader, the scrappy upstart of the bunch. The staff was worn ragged by the task of getting online. They announced the service was closing down this Monday only to possibly reopen later in the week; they described their lives as "hell in every possible aspect we could imagine." Competing with three or four midsize rivals isn't that much easier than competing with one behemoth.
The services that managed to stay up and running still face an uphill battle mimicking Google's features without its servers and data to lean on. Right now, none of the major offerings have a workable search function and the ones that are rolling it out, like Feedly and Digg, are saving it for premium (i.e. paying) members. It was an easy trick for Google, which could borrow one of the most sophisticated search engines on earth, but for smaller players, it's an expensive feature to add. Even simple tricks like OPML export are still recent additions, while mobile apps and device syncing are farther out on the horizon. Having rushed to get the readers online before Google's deadline, companies left a lot of features only partially finished.
Of course, there are rewards for the ones that make it through. Some Reader partisans may have given up on RSS after the shutdown, but the majority seem to have migrated to other platforms. In the weeks following the announcement, Feedly saw 3 million Google Reader refugees sign up and Newsblur says it now has 25 times the paid subscriptions it did in March.
25 times the paid subscriptions it did in March.
For Google, Reader was essentially an afterthought, a way to drive traffic to Google+ and not even worth keeping alive. For Newsblur, RSS is everything, the company's single purpose and sole product — and it's necessarily a paid one. "All of my biggest competitors either have pay accounts or are planning them," Clay told The Verge. "The market growth just isn't there, so charging users is the only way to stay alive."
For Digg, RSS is even more than that. Its reader fits into both Digg.com and Betaworks’ larger strategy for building itself into the content business. General manager Jake Levine describes Digg Reader as a "critical piece of the future for our company." Crawling the internet is hard, but it gives you valuable insight into what people are actually reading. Levine envisions the reader as "the foundation for a suite of personalized news products that adapt to a wide variety of readers." If you're trying to surface interesting content, a dedicated content crawler lets you know what users are reading and what they’re clicking on, which can be extremely valuable data.
Seen that way, the flock of post-Google RSS readers seem less like replacements than evolutions. Reader was great, but Google let it stagnate. It was only ever going to be a side project, something to keep engineers busy while the company expanded its stranglehold on search and tried to force its way into social. Cut loose from the corporate demands of Google, RSS can be more than that. It’s already been a crucial open web standard, and now it can be a paid professional tool along the lines of Photoshop, or an AOL-style portal for experiencing the internet at large. It can be something we haven't even thought of yet. The companies involved are still catching up to Google's feature set, but there's no reason to think they'll stop there. It may be time to stop being sad for the reader that was, and get excited for the reader that's coming.