Did the iPhone Kill Google Reader?

Posted on March 25, 2013

The End of Google Reader

This week Google announced the death of Google Reader, its RSS reading solution. Is it possible that the iPhone was one of the major causes of the failure of Google Reader?

What is Google Reader and What did it Bring to Google?

Rich Site Summary (RSS) was first released in 1999 but really became popular in the mid 2000s with the rise of the readership of blogs. The idea behind RSS is that content from various sources such as blogs or newspapers can be aggregated and read in one place without having to visit various different websites.

For Google, this represented a challenge to its advertisement business. If different blogs and websites were displaying Google ads next to its content, Google would stand to loose those ad impressions and clicks if users read content in a different environment.

Hence, in 2005 Google released its web-based reader service that would allow users to collect RSS feeds in one place, and read the content in an environment that Google controlled. That meant that Google would be able to continue to display ads next to the content. This was a huge win for Google for several reasons: they learnt more about the user and no longer had to share ad revenue with the content publisher.

Over time, Google increased the offer of RSS management tools, notability by purchasing Feedburner, making it easy for users to add RSS feeds to Reader. Effectively, Google crowded-out other RSS services from the market and then stopped innovating their RSS services.

The Rise of the iPhone and a Challenge to Google Reader

Feedly RSS Reader replaced Google Reader for many

Feedly RSS Reader on iPhone

In 2007 Apple released the iPhone which began a big change in how we consume content and use the Internet. The iPhone, once opened up to applications, began a shift in consuming RSS from the web, and Google’s Reader, to applications. iPad, released in 2010, only accelerated this trend as Internet use started its migration from the desktop web browser to tablet applications, and funding models from ads to paid apps.

Most of these new generation of RSS applications continued to use Google Reader as the data store for RSS feeds and content, but didn’t show any ads. Hence Google was taking the cost of storing the content without generating any revenue from its investment. This clearly led to its decision to discontinue the service.

What Must We Take Away from this Debacle?

There are a few lessons to take away from this debacle:-
• if you don’t pay for a service, it might become untenable and be closed.
• if you pay for a service, are you paying enough?
• if you are building a service, have you a clear way to profit while running the service?
• if you’re running a backend service, how are you charging for it?
• don’t trust Google
• if you stop innovating, you risk being disrupted.

Didn’t Twitter Kill RSS?

It’s true that many people who used RSS migrated to twitter as their preferred way of discovering new content. Yet many people preferred RSS readers and aggregated content. It’s really a question of preference!