One week on from the Google Reader news, and two very real trends are becoming clear. We will never trust Google again; and we are all thinking carefully about the sustainability of our online services.
Yesterday, Google announced a new service, Keep. It's… look, it's post-it notes for your phone, OK? There's really only so much technobabble one man can put up with. Android only for the moment, and quite pretty design.
But, here's the thing. Keep is clearly an experiment. It's free on Google Play, it's got no adverts, it's all stored on a centralised service – it is, in other words, Google Reader five years ago.
Would you build your life around it? I wouldn't.
Google Keep (Dreaming if you think we trust you now)
— rstevens 3.01 (@rstevens) March 21, 2013
Google Keep: sure, go ahead, trust a company that kills a market space (i.e. RSS readers in 2006) and then kills the product itself
— George Siemens (@gsiemens) March 21, 2013
Not sure I can trust Google not to pull its Keep note taking service. It killed Reader without a care. I'll stick with Evernote and OneNote.
— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) March 20, 2013
It became a cliché after the closure of Google Reader, but it became a cliché because it is, at heart, true: if you don't pay for a product, you can't expect it to primarily serve you. If it has ads, you aren't the customer, you're the product; but if it doesn't have ads, it's even worse. You aren't using a product, you're using an expensive advertisement the company has created to try and get itself acquired (or acqhired).
It's why, in my list of possible replacements for Google Reader, I thought NewsBlur looked like the best shot. Because it's a service which has the radical business model of getting people to pay for it.
There will always be free services online which are good, and which live long and fruitful lives. Google and Facebook, to name two. And even paid-for services still die in their prime, as happened to mail app Sparrow, acquired by Google last year and shuttered. But as a rule of thumb, if you can't see how a developer can survive while providing you a service you desperately need, they probably can't, and you should expect a change down the line.
But there's one other aspect of sustainability, and it pains me to say it, but: this is why Twitter is closing off its API. Google Reader's API is used by an extraordinary number of feed-reading apps, including Reeder and NetNewsWire for Mac and iOS and Feedly for iOS and Android. Not everyone used them, and the main Reader web app was certainly popular – but once the closure of the sharing features removed the main reason for using the web app, the exodus set in.
And if everyone is using your product through an API, then it's hard to make any money from that. Google doesn't show ads on Reader, because it's always been a hobby for the company, but the sheer number of users who were using it as little more than a pipe mean that even if it had begun to show ads, it would have still been providing an enormous free service to the users of other companies' products.
With that in mind… I can see why Twitter has taken its extraordinarily anti-third-party-developer moves. And I'm not quite as against it as I was. I would like a Twitter which was happy to let me use Tweetbot, happy to let me tell Tumblr who I follow, and didn't try and impose its vision of how I should use its service on everyone else. I would even pay to be a member of that Twitter (although, unfortunately for app.net, I also like all the people I follow on Twitter, so can't quite flounce off somewhere else). But that isn't the choice: the choice is the Twitter we have, or a Twitter which goes the way of Google Reader.