RSS Readers: in the dog house

So farewell Google Reader, I will miss you.

This week's announcement of the demise of Google Reader as part of the Second Spring of Cleaning seems to be an important milestone for the internet.

There's a lot of new blog articles lamenting its demise (to some extent, this is one of them) but we shouldn't be too shocked. The original concept behind RSS has been under threat for some time, in fact if you Google "War on RSS" you'll see an established idea that companies that have a powerful influence on the way we use the internet have been deprecating RSS for some time.

Perhaps the most interesting of these contribution comes from @vambenepe who wrote The war on RSS in February last year. It's a good overview of the way RSS reading features are going missing in systems we use to access the internet and contains this worrying quote:

Google has done a lot for RSS, but as a result it has put itself in position to kill it, either accidentally or on purpose. [...snip...] [... If] Google closed Reader, would RSS survive? Doubtful.

This particular commentator is interesting because since writing this he has moved on to become "Product Manager on Google Cloud Platform". Don't expect a follow up article but he did tweet yesterday:

"1 year ago, I asked: "If Google closed Reader, would RSS survive?" http://stage.vambenepe.com/archives/1932 We'll now find out but I won't be able to comment."

One of the takeaways here is that we're not just talking about RSS specifically. When we say RSS we can include Atom and readers of this blog will know that I'm a fan of Atom and the emerging OData standard that is based upon it. But let's not get carried away. This war is not on the protocol but on the use of RSS as a way of end users discovering content on the internet. The emergence of OData (based on the Atom Publishing Protocol, not the read-only RSS) as a protocol that sits between the web app and the data source is likely to get even stronger.

Even HTTP has changed. This blog post uses HTTP in an old fashioned way. I'm writing an article, inserting anchors that form hypertext links to other resources on the internet. I'm banking on the idea that these resources won't go away and that this article will join a persistant web of information. If you're reading this you're probably thinking, duh, that's what the internet is. In the early days this was true but the internet is no longer like this for the majority of users. HTTP sits as a protocol behind the web apps we use to check Twitter, Facebook and iTunes but the concept behind the way most people consume information on the internet bears no relation to the classic hypertext visions we used to cite when we were all researchers working in universities in the early 90s.

Go back and read the seminal As we may think or review the goals of Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project and you won't recognise the origins of iTunes, on-demand TV, micro-blogging or ad-supported social networks. From a UK point of view, we didn't even have commercial broadcast television until 1955 (when ITV was launched) which is 10 years after As we may think was published. The existence of these modern uses of the internet do not preclude the research use envisaged by these information scientists, it just relegates it to a niche.

The problem for people like you and me, who occupy this niche, is that the divergence of consumer internet technology from the original research oriented web is eventually going to make it more expensive. There's no law that says that Google has to provide an RSS reading tool for free (or a blogging service for that matter). In fact, the withdrawal of this service may actually provide a shot in the arm for the makers of RSS readers who have been starved by people like me who use the freebie Google Reader instead of their more tailored offerings. Yes, I would be prepared to pay to have something like Google Reader that stays in sync across my tablet, phone and laptop.

Ad, ad, ad...

While I'm on the subject of money, I do want to draw your attention to Xanadu's rule 9:

Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies ("transclusions") of all or part of the document.

I really think it is time that technology providers started to look again at this goal. In the early days of the internet this was considered unrealistic. In fact, I remember sitting through meetings in which people responsible for creating the infrastructure that made the internet possible were highly doubtful that traffic accounting would ever be possible. The growth in internet traffic would always outpace the ability of switching gear and routers to count bits and report on usage. That prediction turned out to be wrong. I think they underestimated the strength of the business case behind bit-counting, which is routine on mobile platforms. My cheap router counts my own internet usage and I know my service provider has realtime stats too, if only to enforce their acceptable usage policy.

There have been a lot of haters for charging based on consumption of bits and this, in my opinion, has distorted the business models available to service providers towards ad-based services and away from the Xanadu-like micro payments.

Most of the rhetoric about the demise of Google Reader is taken from the point of view of the consumer, not the information publisher. Of course I want to consume content for free using free technology over an unlimited internet connection. But none of these things are really free. We've all heard the adage that if something is free then you're the product. As an RSS consumer, my costs just outstripped my marketable value to Google. I'm not a cash cow anymore, I'm a dog.

From Reader to Blogger

But as I type, I'm not just consuming the content I used to research it. I'm also publishing content of my own. At the moment for free. I don't want to enable ads on this blog but the technology doesn't yet make it easy for me, or anyone between me and you, to collect revenue and experiment with pricing. It's more complicated than you might think.

Rule 8 of Xanadu reads "Permission to link to a document is explicitly granted by the act of publication." Early internet sites seriously considered violating this principal. Content providers considered themselves to be so valuable that someone creating a site that aggregated links to their gems were somehow cheating the system. This has been turned completely on its head now, these days information providers are hungry for links and when those links result in product sales they are prepared to pay real money to the aggregator. This is the basis on which all the market comparison sites are run.

If content publishers got revenue from people viewing their materials (Xanadu style) then linking to someone's content becomes a valuable lead. How would payments trickle back to the owner of the <a> tag?

We know that the ad-model works. YouTube generates huge revenues for people like PSY. But for people outside the mainstream who occupy this niche, typified by users of Google Reader, we need another way to solve the money problem. Perhaps the new technology that emerges to take the place of Reader will come up with a creative way to address this issue. Especially if they start getting paid by their users.