Free Ultimately Always Has a Price

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I bet by now you have heard the news Google Reader will be shutting down on July 1, 2013:

We have just announced on the Official Google Blog that we will soon retire Google Reader (the actual date is July 1, 2013). We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go. We’re sad too.

There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

To ensure a smooth transition, we’re providing a three-month sunset period so you have sufficient time to find an alternative feed-reading solution. If you want to retain your Reader data, including subscriptions, you can do so through Google Takeout.

Thank you again for using Reader as your RSS platform.

That’s it..thank all of you for signing up for our service, relying on it but we have to go now.  Virtually everyone I know jumped at the chance to use Google Reader to keep track of their RSS feeds and synchronize them with a supporting client application on your Mac, Windows PC and any iOS and Android device. The ease of use and integration with the platform almost eliminated the market for desktop (Mac and Windows) RSS reader clients.  

What happens now when Google Reader has its plugged pulled this summer?  We lose all of the conveniences afforded to us by Google Reader and we have no where to turn to at this point.

Marco Arment points out this may not be a bad thing:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade. 

I think he’s right but at a cost.  All the RSS reader applications who use Google Reader will now need to scramble and retool with their own sync platform or work with others to create one that many can use.  It won’t be free to build, support and maintain.

Possible solutions do exist today but not really 100% replacements for Reader; both NewsBlur and Feedly have been mentioned but they seem to be having some scaling issues at the moment. 

It seems others, such as David Smith, envisioned something should be available that is not run by Google.  David announced last night that he is working on such a platform and has for months:

Feed Wrangler will be a paid, subscription based service. I believe the reason that Google turned its back on Reader and left its users hanging is that they were users not customers. I’m not interested in building a platform designed to attract as many users as possible and then work out how to sustain it later. I want to instead build something that is sustainable from Day 1. I want my customers to feel confident that they can expect this to be around long into the future. I want to build a relationship with them and make something they really, really love. 

I agree and this sums up my thoughts on free.  Free services are not good for its users in the long run, they’re not sustainable and the company operating the services has no real obligation to keep it going.  I like to give money to the services I use, it makes me feel good that the service I rely on will be there tomorrow.  I would have gladly given Google money for my Reader account, but they never asked.  It gives them an out.

I don’t trust Google will not shutdown other free services, such as Feedburner.  Those of you consuming free services probably should take this opportunity to take a look and reflect on what would happen if they went away.  How would you replace them?  Are there comparable services you could pay for that may be a more sustainable business model?  Entrepreneurs creating free services…do you think that’s the best way to go?  Me either.

  • Matt Lamoureux

    I have one counterpoint… By using any Google services – even the free ones – we are technically customers because of the data they are able to acquire from us. They can see what news types I subscribe to, what specific stories of those feeds that I read, and even how often I read them or share them. I would think that is useful information for them for ad generation – as much if not more so than correlated search data.

  • Rob Bazinet

    Yes, you are definitely right. Google gives away their services in exchange for finding out about those habits.

    A company who is creating a service in exchange for money has a much better chance of keeping that service going if they are making a profit from it. The company who takes my money in exchange for using their accounting services is most likely going to be around tomorrow.

    Google on the other hand, doesn’t take money but instead takes my habits. Once my habits don’t result in any useful patterns, then the service is tossed aside. Google is a user company, much like a leach.