The iPhone and Google Reader hegemony

A lot has been written in the past 24 hours about Google’s announcement that it’s shutting down Reader in a few months. The optimistic view, best expressed by Marco Arment, is that this will usher in a sort of RSS Renaissance. In this view, Google’s dominance over the area in the past several years had stifled innovation; when it’s shadow no longer looms over the landscape, a thousand flowers will bloom. I suspect he’s right—I certainly hope he is, because Twitter is no substitute for RSS.

What’s missing from the articles I’ve seen, though, is an explanation of how Google Reader got to be the 800 pound gorilla of RSS. It’s almost as if it were a fait accompli, that Google is a force of nature that inevitably takes over any field it gets into. The way I see it, though, is that it was the iPhone that put Google Reader in the driver’s seat.

Cast your memory back to 2005, when Reader debuted. Syndication of content had been around for a while and was still considered a hot thing. You could read the feeds you subscribed to through your browser or through dedicated programs like NetNewsWire. The common characteristic was that you’d query every site for its content and display only the stuff that was new to you.

If you had more than one computer, “new” didn’t always mean “content I haven’t read.” More typically it meant “content I haven’t read on this computer.” Syncing solutions were out there, but were a relatively new development. One of the easiest ways to avoid seeing the repeated items was to use a web-based service like Bloglines, which kept track of your subscriptions and the items you’d already seen.

When Google Reader came out, many of the digital cognescenti went gaga over it. This was, remember, back before Google seemed creepy, and all the cool people who had GMail invitations before the rest of us loved Reader’s GMailish interface. Personally, I preferred Bloglines and stuck with it. But then I got an iPhone.

At first, I used the Bloglines mobile site in Safari, but that sucked. Google Reader’s mobile site sucked, too. Steve Jobs’ sweet solution of web apps for the iPhone was anything but sweet, mainly because web developers hadn’t figured out mobile yet.1 When NNW became available in the App Store I got it, but its syncing, through News Gator, was kind of flaky. For what seemed like a very long time, RSS reading on the iPhone was frustrating.

Then came apps, like Reeder, that used the Google Reader API for syncing. They were so much better than what had come before. NetNewsWire, both the iOS and OS X versions, dropped the News Gator syncing and went with the Reader API. It was soon unthinkable for an RSS reader to not sync through Google.

For a user, once your phone’s RSS reader is using Google Reader, you’re hooked. You have to use it on the desktop—either directly in the browser or indirectly through an application—to maintain synchronization. Thus, the march of Reader to world RSS domination.

Would this have happened without the iPhone? Maybe. Google’s really good at cloud infrastructure, and maybe the Reader API would have taken over the syncing of desktop feed readers even without the push from the phone side. But remember that lots of people are perfectly happy reading their feeds in a browser when they’re working on a computer.2 Browsers, after all, are a natural environment for the mixture of text, images, and links that make up a typical news feed, and the Reader API isn’t necessary for a browser-based reader.

But browser-based readers have a hard time competing with dedicated apps on phones. Phones have limited resources and slower processors, and the drag that comes from the extra layer of the browser is noticeable. Also, there’s not as much room, or user patience, for the ads that browser-based readers need to survive. So dedicated apps won, and the people who wrote those apps trusted Google to provide a speedy and reliable service. It was a reasonable decision—you can’t make money on a $1.99 app if you also have to provide an API and cloud storage—but it gave Google all the power.

Not that Google knew what to do with it. That’s clear from Om Malik’s great interview with Reader’s creator, Chris Wetherell. Or, as Gabe said

Bigger revelation: Google built a service that you configure with all your interests and biases. They couldn’t make it profitable.
macdrifter (@macdrifter) Wed Mar 13 2013 7:45 PM CDT

Before I forget, if you want to tell me that the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, that you were reading RSS feeds on your phone before the iPhone even existed, and that fanboys like me are so blinded by our love of Apple that we give it credit for everything, I’ll be happy to listen. But only if you post your comment from an N95.

  1. Nowadays, with responsive design, web apps on phones are much better. If responsive design had been around in 2007, the original iPhone would have seemed even more amazing and capable, even without the App Store. But of course there was no need for responsive design before the iPhone. 

  2. Most Mac bloggers, I know, are horrified by this thought, but most Mac bloggers buy a lot more software than normal people do. 

10 Responses to “The iPhone and Google Reader hegemony”

  1. Jason Verly says:

    My opinion on why Google became dominant is because most government and private industries don’t block/blacklist the Google domain. So when government agencies or other work related information started offering RSS as a way to automate information delivery, most people could only use Google Reader. Eventually this migrates to what people use at home and then to the choices some companies offer. I’ve seen RSS buttons assume Google Reader was the only choice and if you didn’t have a Google account then their RSS button borked.

    More of my thoughts on this are here:

  2. Josh says:

    Interesting take on it. I like it (and think it’s probably pretty accurate), even though I come from almost the exact opposite side of things.

    I used Reader alongside Bloglines for about a month and came to the conclusion that Reader did a better job for me. (I don’t remember what it was that finally sold me on Reader. It could have been something as petty as already being authenticated to Reader if I was logged into GMail, or vice versa. I would really like to say it was the keyboard commands, but it was probably the authentication “feature.” All of that said, my taste in software is a bit odd: I have been entertaining the idea of putting all of my feeds into gwene and consuming with gnus for a few months now.)

    The iPhone was a late adoption for me, and the only reason I consumed RSS on it was because Reeder interacted directly with Reader; I had invested time into Reader, and I wasn’t going to change because my mobile device supported something else. In fact, it would have simply been a mark against the awesomeness of the device. But that’s just me.

  3. Bill says:

    I never reas RSS in a browser. I remember the anxiety when NetNewsWire switched to Google Reader, but the truth was that it worked better than ever after the switch. I’ve since moved to Reeder on iPhone and Mr. Reader on iPad — I rarely reed feeds on a computer anymore — and now my anxiety is ramped up again.

    What we need now is a universal standard for a backend sync, as Marco has proposed. The question is, who will pay for it, and how? Many of us would gladly throw a few bucks at a cross-device, cross-app solution, but Google Reader has taught users that info is free (or rather, that the price is not transparent, and not drawn directly from your bank account).

    I always wondered how Google Reader could be profitable. Now I know. The question is, can anyone make money on this, and if not, what hope for RSS?

  4. Karl says:


    Syncing solutions were out there, but were a relatively development.

    should be (?):

    Syncing solutions were out there, but were a relatively NEW development.

  5. Sean says:

    My wife uses Reader and likes it. I ditched it years ago and use NNW. So I downed a copy of NNW for her and set it up. But she wants one in a browser. Different ways of doing things I guess.

    I backed off, told her to wait a bit and there would be good replacements soon enough.

    But based on all the bitching about losing Reader, it seems that she may be right about what people want in a contemporary reader. I must be doing it wrong. (Nah)

    My method is to screen a bunch of feeds using arrow keys, send some to the browser, again with the arrow keys. Then after a bit, tab over to Safari and read the things. Its the laziest way I can come up with. I see the killing of Reader as a great thing. We may get a reprieve from the death of RSS as a result.

  6. Dr. Drang says:

    Thanks, Karl. Fixed.

  7. Richard says:

    Well said. This is exactly the way it evolved for me.

    I used NNW for years, got hooked on RSS, could never get NewsGator to work and eventually migrated to Google Reader. When the iPhone came out and Reeder was released I was in heaven.

    For me, Reeder is the single most important application on my Mac and iOS devices and frankly I don’t care who does cloud synchronization of my feeds. If Apple added it to iCloud I’d be fine or if DIGG or someone else did it I’d be fine. What I care about is continuing to use Reeder and having it sync across devices.

  8. Clark says:

    I pointed out that Google could have gotten a lot of info for search about what blogs and other sites were prominent via GoogleReader. However someone else mentioned that they probably get all that info from Chrome rendering GoogleReader largley redundant. That’s probably the real issue.

  9. Dr. Drang says:

    Your point about Chrome and Reader makes sense, but the interesting thing about Malik’s interview of Weatherell is that Google never seemed to know what to do with Reader, even before Chrome.

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