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.