Google Reader is turning off the lights in just over a week’s time, but people will have no shortage of alternative options when it does die, since everyone and their brother is building an RSS reader to fill the perceived gap. It’s hard to blame them; when Google announced the shutdown of Reader, it was as if millions of voices on the Internet suddenly cried out in terror, and were not silenced. If people are literally asking for a product en masse, that’s probably something a product team in search of a project is going to hang their hat on.
But is that the right move? Granted, there’s an appetite, and an apparent need out there, and a huge user base primed and ready to adopt a new RSS reader product. But there’s also plenty of existing supply, from people who have been in the business longer, including Feedly. And there’s also a reason Google exited the business to begin with, one that, while probably specific to Google itself, should at least have others like Aol and Betaworks giving serious thought to long-term product viability.
Google is closing Reader likely because the product doesn’t align with its larger goals, and because it would rather funnel people to other content-discovery products in its roster, like Google+ specifically. Reader is hard to monetize, and probably requires a lot of engineering resources devoted to maintenance, troublehooting and tech support. And Google, while widespread in its ambitions, is also not squeamish about cutting its losses with peripheral products that don’t achieve quite the critical mass or results they’re looking for.
Betaworks is likewise a company with far-ranging interests, but it does put a lot of focus on building the next generation of news and information-gathering products, so a reader is a good fit. And Aol is more and more a media company, so in many ways building a reader is a natural direction for growth for it, too. But building a product that a more successful Internet giant is killing still seems like a backwards move, even if in the short term, it’s being hailed as a clever, opportunistic way to capitalize on clearly expressed demand.
Despite the Digg team’s claim that they’d been planning to build a reader-type product before the Google announcement, both products can’t help but seem intensely reactionary, and reaction is never a good look for companies that we expect to be pushing the envelope in terms of innovation. Plus, I’m still of the opinion that the outcry for Reader’s death was from a small, vocal minority centered in the tech community, not something that represents a huge open ocean of general consumer need.
Not to mention that the sudden glut of options will segment a market I suspect is already small and getting broken up into even more rarefied pieces (especially if Facebook also throws its hat in the ring). One of these companies could offer a twist that prompts a revival and renewed interest, but I think it’s much more likely these products will appeal to a circumscribed audience of people feeling the loss of Reader acutely, not making overtures to brand-new users. If that’s innovation these days, then innovation bores me.