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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.