A week on from the shuttering of Reader, does anyone trust Google yet?

Google lied, Reader died.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.