Good riddance, Google Reader, Manjoo says

Posted3/23/2013 8:16 AM
  • We should all consider Google Reader's death a wake-up call -- a reminder that any time you choose to get involved with a new app, you should think about the long haul.

    We should all consider Google Reader's death a wake-up call -- a reminder that any time you choose to get involved with a new app, you should think about the long haul.

I've made it pretty clear that I don't like RSS readers. When you subscribe to your favorite sites and read all their articles in a single, text-heavy interface, you're eliding the beauty and variety of design on the Web. You're also turning news reading into a chore. Or, at least, that's what I felt -- with its prominent, hectoring count of all my unread posts, opening up Google Reader was as stressful as dealing with my email inbox. And I want the Web to be fun, not stressful. So when Google announced this week that it would soon kill Google Reader, I wasn't bothered in the least. I might even have said a few mean things about it on Twitter.

But enough about me. Let's talk about you. You didn't just love Google Reader. No, your feelings about it were much deeper -- you relied on Google Reader, making it a central part of your daily workflow, a key tool for organizing stuff you had to read for work or school. Now it's gone, and you feel lost. Sure, there are alternatives, and transferring all your feeds to one of these will probably take just a few minutes. But that won't be the end of it. You'll still have to learn the quirks of your new software. You'll still have to get the rhythm down. And most of all, you'll still worry about abandonment. Google says it killed Reader because the software's usage was on the decline. But Google Reader was the most popular RSS reader on the Web. If people were quitting Reader, aren't they likely to quit the alternatives, too?

I feel for you. I really do. While I didn't use Reader, Reader-lovers' plight could happen to any of us. Every day, our computers, phones and tablets harangue us to try new stuff -- new apps, new sites and new services that will supposedly make this or that thing so much more awesome than before. You're aware of the dangers of committing too hastily, so before you get too invested, you diligently check reviews and solicit opinions from tech pundits like myself. But when all those assessments converge, who can blame you for getting in too deep? Back in 2005, when Google launched Reader, the company talked about it like they'd keep it around forever. And they probably thought they would. You took them at their word, and now you've been burned.

Reader's death illustrates a terrible downside of cloud software -- sometimes your favorite, most indispensable thing just goes away. Yes, software would get discontinued back in the days when we relied on desktop apps, but when desktop software died it wasn't really dead. If you're still a fan of ancient versions of WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3, you can keep using them on your aging DOS box. But when cloud software dies, it goes away for good. If the company that's killing it is decent, it may let you export your data. But you'll never, ever be able to use its code again.

That's why we should all consider Reader's death a wake-up call -- a reminder that any time you choose to get involved with a new app, you should think about the long haul. It's not a good idea to hook up with every great app that comes along, even if it's terrifically innovative and mind-bogglingly cheap or even free. Indeed, you should be especially wary if something seems too cheap. That's because software is expensive. To build and maintain the best software requires engineering and design talent that will only stick around when a company has an obvious way to make money. If you want to use programs that last, it's not enough to consider how well they work. You've also got to be sure that there's a solid business model attached to the code.

And if a particular tool is indispensable to you -- your project management software, for instance -- you might want to think about choosing one of those incredibly old-fashioned software companies that will allow you to pay for its stuff. Just paying for software doesn't guarantee its longevity -- companies that accept your money can always go out of business. But companies that take your money are at least signaling to you that their software is just as important to them as it is to you. On the other hand, companies that don't take your money and won't even say how the product you love will ever make money -- hey, they're fun for a romp, but don't be surprised when they ditch town in the middle of the night.

Free stuff online is great, but nothing is free forever. If you care for something, open your wallet.

• Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." Twitter: @fmanjoo

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