Replacing Reader

Assuming no change of heart on the part of Google (not likely), one month from today Reader will disappear, taking with it the capabilities of many RSS aggregators on all platforms. As I ranted about soon after the announcement in March, this particular hole in the cloud will wipe out a key component in the information management process of many people, some of whom I think don’t even know they’re using Reader and will be very surprised on July 1.

Google reader icon scalable by lopagof

Of course, RSS as a technology will not vanish with the shut down of Reader and sites will not stop publishing feeds of their content, so it’s just a matter of time, and a lot of work, until robust replacement services become available. But that’s not likely to happen in the next month.

So, what are the options in the meantime?  For my personal needs, I’ll be using Feedly.

They have the advantage of already offering good plugins for the major browsers combined with solid apps for iPhone and iPad (plus Android and Kindle). In a blog post following the Google announcement, the developers claimed that transitioning to their service would be simple as long as users linked to their Reader accounts before the shut down.

The big downside, which will keep me searching for something better, is that Feedly is free to the end user. I’ve become very wary of free software and services that have no apparent plan for supporting the company. Eventually, they either disappear (or get bought and disappear) or start throwing ads at me, in which case the advertisers become their customers, not me.

Other negatives are that this is a proprietary service, meaning that other apps probably won’t be able to use the syncing capabilities with a different, maybe improved interface, and it does not yet support linking to some of the other services in my information flow.

For the long run, I’ll be watching the potential Reader replacement being built by the company behind the social news service Digg. In May they also bought Instapaper, another service I depend on and which has some interesting possibility for an intersection with an RSS syncing service.

I’ll also be taking a closer look at Feed Wrangler and Feedbin, neither of which are free (the under $20 annual fee is reasonable if the value is there). Both also allow developers to connect applications to their services, including some I already use.

If you need more alternatives to explore, there’s Newsblur, another paid service ($24 a year) with a free version limited to 64 feeds (about 1/3 of what I have), although a rather ugly interface. Or The Old Reader, which bills itself as “the ultimate social RSS reader” but has no mobile apps yet. Or for the very geeky, Fever, RSS syncing software you install on your own server.

I’m sure there are more alternatives in the works, likely with a few interesting innovations. But whatever you decide to do for your RSS aggregation needs, one thing that all Reader users should do right now is export their data from Google while you still can. They make it very easy, starting on this page.

Buyer Beware

As I’ve mentioned in other rants, I speak to many groups on the topic of managing information while on the go and using multiple devices to do it. While each person needs to figure out the process that works best for them, almost everyone now depends on interconnected services and applications that can sync to some kind of storage in the now-legendary cloud.

It turns out those web-based services are not yet to the point of being completely dependable. Case in point, back in March Google pretty much lopped off one of the cornerstones of the information management process I use and advocate when they announced the shutting down of Reader, their service that is the "cloud" behind (above?) many, if not most, RSS aggregator applications. Which means that millions of us who depended on Reader (plus more than a few software publishers) are looking for alternatives before July 1.

Last week my process potentially took another hit when the developer of Instapaper, another application I depend on every day, posted that he was selling the popular read-later service. Considering how many small web/app companies have disappeared lately because their new owners wanted the people and technologies* but not the product, I had reason to be concerned.

However, there’s a big difference between this announcement and Google’s. Instapaper’s owner was very up front and transparent about the sale. Between posts to his blog and discussions on several podcasts, he made it clear that his first concern was for the users of the service. A core part of the deal was that the development of Instapaper continue.

It remains to be seen if everyone involved follows through on this plan, but this situation illustrates the big difference between Google and this individual developer (other than one is an 800 pound gorilla).

Google’s business is selling advertising and it’s users (and the data they generate) are the product being sold. The shutdown of Reader is one more sign that leaders of the company have decided anything not generating revenue must be changed or deleted.

Maybe not something to worry about but certainly something to consider before you begin to rely on a product, service, or app (from Google or any other company) that may disappear on short notice.


*One of the latest examples is Posterous, a simple blogging site that was bought by Twitter in 2012 and shut down a few days ago.

Only Annoying

I know, a big chunk of my life is spent in a strange little bubble.

Last Wednesday afternoon, my Twitter feed exploded with surprise/anger/sadness over Google’s announcement of the impending death of Reader. In the normal world, most people were coping with the usual end-of-week issues and thinking about the weekend.

Ok, so Google’s corporate decision to shut down a service that wasn’t making any money for them isn’t a big tragedy, even to most in my decidedly geek twitter feed.

But at least for me it’s a big annoyance, for two reasons.

The first comes from having to find a replacement for Reader. RSS is one of the cornerstones of my information flow and almost every app I use in that category is tied to it. Going without RSS management tools is just not an option.  

Fortunately, there are already alternatives (Feedly and NewsBlur are two I’m playing with at the moment) with lots of smart people working on others (digg for one). I’m also hopeful that Marco Armant, creator of Instapaper, another cornerstone for me, is right when he speculates that because of Google’s decision we are “finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition” in this space for the first time in a decade.

Index card

The second annoyance, and the difficult part, is finding an RSS aggregator that will be easy to explain to all the not-so-geeky people I work with on a regular basis. Teachers, librarians, school administrators, and others who need systems for managing their ever increasing information flow that are better than bookmarks, email, and other 20th century tools.

Over the past five years or so, I’ve probably done twenty presentations and workshops around the concept of managing information in an age of data overflow and being viewed on multiple devices (one example). In every one of them Google Reader, and apps that use the service as the back end, was featured front and center. I’m doing another in a couple of weeks so some fast editing is in order.

But that’s my problem, and I doubt anyone at Google is at all concerned.

Which brings us to another lesson from all this that I need to include in my sessions: never assume that even the best companies have your interests as their first priority, unless you’re related to the CEO.


The graphic is my lame attempt to imitate the work of Jessica Nagy at the wonderful This is Indexed. Sorry.

Why I Don’t Like Free

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all that different from most others when it comes to someone buying me lunch. And I’ve certainly collected my share of conference tchotchkes over the years.

But I’ve also been around long enough to have learned that free seldom comes without a price, especially in this digital life. That point was driven home this week when Google announced the death of Reader, their RSS aggregator and a service I have relied on every day for many years.

When it comes to free, whether it’s hardware, software, or services, there are basically three ways you wind up paying.

One is through advertising, which is what you get with “free” search, “free” social networking sites, apps, video, and more. The payment comes in the form of clutter, distraction, and that nagging suspicion that you’re being tracked (likely you are). Or they directly connect your content to the advertising. (Ask the users of Instagram how that feels.) The saying goes that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product, not the customer.

Another way free can cost you comes in the form of underpowered software and services. The description looks like what you need but you eventually discover that the no-cost version doesn’t do what you need it to do and to get the functionality you were promised, there’s either a paid version or the newly fashionable “in-app purchases” to bring it up to speed.

Finally, we have the cost that Google is now extracting from many of us: the product or service disappears. If the developer isn’t making money from either you or advertisers, they don’t have a lot of incentive to continue developing and improving their creation. Or continuing to make it available at all.

So now I will be paying for the years of free functionality provided by Google Reader in the form of spending my time looking for good alternatives. (So much for don’t be evil.)

And worrying about the possible fate of Delicious, another service with no apparent business plan that has also become a cornerstone of my information life. Maybe I’ll be proactive and take another look at Pinboard.