As everyone by now has heard, Google has decided to pull the plug on Google Reader, its RSS feed aggregator. Google’s reason is that Reader has a declining user base and that it wants to concentrate on other projects. I should have known that this was in the works every since they killed the social aspects of Reader and made its link harder to find. Unlike some other companies, Google is providing users with an easy way to extract their data and giving them three months before the service is shut down.
But let’s be clear: their motives are nothing if not in their own self-interest. It was one thing to allow Google Reader to continue to operate when, while it provided no benefit, there was no harm in allowing it to occupy a small section of Google’s massive server farms. But now the rumor is that Google will be launching its own competitor to Apple’s Newsstand, a place where people can pay for digital subscriptions to online content. Many of those content providers publish at least some of that content for free, often with RSS feeds; with Google axing Reader, it removes any perceived conflict that might prevent those content providers from joining up.
I tend to go back and forth on the scale of free software ideology vs. convenience, with this decision by Google propelling me firmly back towards the side of ideology. Projects like Firefox and Debian (both of which I am a proud user), run by non-profits that are big enough to compete with industry backed alternatives, are key to a healthy software ecosystem. Of course for-profit companies, like Canonical, Red Hat, and Google, are necessary and useful members of the free software community; however, having organizations dedicated to free software for its own sake helps get the ecosystem vibrant and alive. While I may not always agree with the goals and methods of the Free Software Foundation, I admire their dedication and think that that are a key member of the community. The ability to have control over your data, without needing to rely exclusively on a third party for its continued existence, is more important than ever in the era of cloud computing. (Its also the reason that I think libraries and archives should be even stronger supporters of free software than they already are, but that is a topic for a separate post.)
As of now, I’m trying out two different replacements for Google Reader: NewsBlur and tt-rss. Both are free software projects: NewsBlur is primarily a hosted service, while you can get the code from GitHub, and tt-rss is only available to those who can install it on a server. Both of these options also have Android apps, which is the other key requirement for me. Right now NewsBlur is still too slammed for me to give it a proper tryout, so tt-rss (installed on my raspberry pi!) is my main feed reader right now. If you are looking for an alternative to Google Reader, try one of those if you can.