I never got into using Google Reader. Sure, as a newsman I've been tempted over the years, but I've spent much of that time trying to discard, not devour, information. Reader promised a firehose of headlines. I wanted a single bottle of filtered water a day.
Yesterday, Google announced that it was shutting down the service on July 1, 2013. "While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined," the company said, adding that it was putting energy "into fewer projects."
That's life on the Internet, of course. Things come and go, for various reasons: lacking financial backing; lacking adoption; acquisitions and changes of strategy; boredom. We see these play out every day in the startup sector.
But Google acknowledged that its user base was vibrant, if smaller than it once was, apparently driving loads of traffic around the web. It was an immensely useful product to those who used it and those publishers who benefited from its referrals. So what gives?
Business, that's what.
Google pulling the plug on Reader is a stark reminder that 1.) it must pull up the rear to keep moving forward; and 2.) it's not in the business of being a public service. Many of its free products masquerade as such, but in the end they are merely end points to absorb data or disperse it, in the form of advertisements. Given the company's ubiquity on the web, it's easy to forget that.
As I was trying to distill my thoughts on this subject, BoingBoing's Rob Beschizza managed to explain it nicely in a tweet: "The lesson of Google Reader, AdSense for RSS and FeedBurner: if they ever can't make money from e-mail ads, be ready to kiss Gmail goodbye." He's right.
Mail, Docs, Drive, Plus, even Search -- whatever your product of preference, Google isn't providing it with the simple, noble goal of providing (what we now consider) essential Internet infrastructure. It needs to profit, too. Whether that comes from immediate return (e.g. ad dollars from Search; enterprise dollars from Apps) or methods less direct (database defense via Plus; differentiation -- but also licensing revenue -- from Maps), the point is that there must be one, at least from a business standpoint.
For Reader, it never quite materialized.
I don't mean for Google's profit-seeking activities to sound malicious; they are necessary to allow these products to exist, nevermind maintain them or even innovate with them using the best engineers around. (In contrast, consider the useful but free labor and donation-dependent Wikipedia.) But at some point, the numbers no longer make sense, or the product no longer aligns. And that's when it ceases to exist. That's life -- and also economics.
So take heed, my fellow Google users: this could happen to you. Don't get too comfortable.