Queuing online might be the only way to save free services

Mailbox may have a queue, but at least it still exists.

The Old Reader announces its closure. Photograph: Old Reader

Ellis Hamburger, at the Verge, writes about the growing trend for apps launching with a waiting list:

In 2013, you can order a pair of cargo shorts from across the globe in less than 30 seconds, so why can’t you download the latest email or photo app to your phone? "Can’t they just add more servers, or throw more money at the problem?" you ask. The answer isn’t so simple.

Most apps go through months of bug testing before launch, but it’s impossible to foresee the user behaviors that will throw off your servers on launch day, like when one early Mailbox user moved 40,000 messages into his inbox at once. "We didn’t plan for that," Mailbox CEO Gentry Underwood says. "Two hundred and fifty [beta testers] is a decent data set, but when you increase that several orders of magnitude you find edge cases."

It's a good piece diving in to a practice which is becoming increasingly common online. And, as if to underscore why it's necessary, RSS service the Old Reader on Monday announced that they would be closing to new users, and throwing off everyone who joined after March 13 2013, in order to lessen the workload on the founders.

The site, which we recommended as one possible home for exiled Google Reader fans, experienced a massive surge in use once Google announced they would be killing their service. That announcement happened on March 14, hence the cut off day the Old Reader has set for keeping accounts. And so the people behind it have decided they can't keep up:

In March things became “nightmare”, but we kept working hard and got things done. First, we were out of evenings, then out of weekends and holidays, and then The Old Reader was the only thing left besides our jobs. Last week difficulty level was changed to “hell” in every possible aspect we could imagine, we have been sleep deprived for 10 days and this impacts us way too much. We have to look back.

The Old Reader could perhaps have prevented this by instituting the same kind of queueing system that Hamburger describes. But perhaps it just underscores what is fast becoming conventional wisdom when assessing start-ups: if you aren't paying for a service, you have no expectation that it will stick around. That's why when we recommended Reader replacements, we described the payed-for nature of Newsblur as a positive; and it's why, although the Old Reader will have lost the trust of most of their potential users, those users have no real right to complain. What did they think would happen?