Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Beware the free, invisible service

Posted on 14 March 2013 8 comments

Checking Twitter over breakfast this morning, my feed was alive with furore over Google’s decision to retire Google Reader, and I’m not ashamed to say that I joined in, too. Of course, we all know that RSS isn’t particularly well-adopted outside the web / tech industry, so it’s perhaps not entirely surprising to see Google kill (what they consider to be) a niche product. What is worrying, though, is that this is yet another example of a product meeting its demise because it’s free.

How many apps and services that you know and love are only in existence because they have a business model? Or, put differently: how many of them would be killed if they were bought by Google? Apparently SnapSeed for Mac is another casualty in Google’s spring cleaning. (I can only hope they don’t kill the iOS version, which is — in my opinion — one of the best apps out there.) As Dalton Caldwell said in App.Net’s manifesto, ‘with a free, ad-supported service, [the service’s] customers are advertisers.’

Of course, there are exceptions. Google killed Sparrow last year, even though it was a paid app. It’s unlikely Gmail or any of Google’s core services will disappear purely because they’re free. And there are plenty of excellent free apps out there with no clear business model. But I still think that Google Reader’s demise highlights our over-reliance on free services; specifically, free invisible services. It struck me that this is the first time I’ve been upset about an invisible service being killed off.

I say ‘invisible’ because I’ve never, ever used Google Reader’s web-based front-end. I use it merely as a back-end service to sync feeds within Reeder, which I have on my iPhone, iPad, and Macs. Perhaps these invisible services are the most important in our digital lives, and therefore leave us the most vulnerable. Imagine if DropBox closed its doors. I think my world would implode.

Except that DropBox is a profitable company, with a service that is paid for by its users. Its customers are users, not advertisers.

I like Google a lot. I think they put out some great products, and I believe that they’re genuinely improving our lives with their forward-thinking technology. I want Google Now on my iPhone. I can’t wait to try Glass. If they build the first robots and flying cars and spaceships to Mars, I’m there. But I think we should all remain just a little bit sceptical about the advertising revenue at the core of the company and the free products — from any company — that are not funded by users’ money.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath, now is a great time to fall back in love with Shaun Inman’s Fever (although it’s worth reading Shaun’s advice). I was a long-time Fever user and only let it slide when I decided I needed cloud-based syncing across multiple machines, but I’ve now realised that Reeder can use Fever as a back-end. Sadly that’s only Reeder for iPhone for now, but I expect the iPad and Mac apps will see an update pretty soon in the wake of yesterday’s announcement. There are plenty of other alternatives out there, too. And, as Marco Arment suggests, perhaps Google Reader’s death will foster a new wave of innovation for RSS apps and service.

That’d be nice.


  1. Ian P

    Ian P

    14 March 2013 @ 11:35AM #

    I signed up for Google Reader 5-6 years ago. I remember being unsure about committing to it because of the reason we’ve now discovered. However, I thought “Oh this is Google, they’ll never close a service like this!”.

    Thanks for the links and suggestions. I think that this will shepherd in a new range of services, but I’m just as cautious about a free service like Feedly. They have great products, but what’s to stop them vanishing too?

  2. Chris Armstrong

    Chris Armstrong

    14 March 2013 @ 11:38AM #

    Part of the problem is that it’s not just the customers who aren’t thinking “is this free product sustainable”, too many of the companies themselves don’t seem to have thought farther than “if we get lots of users we can monetize them somehow”.

  3. Steve Rydz

    Steve Rydz

    14 March 2013 @ 01:26PM #

    I agree that this really does highlight our (over)reliance on seemingly free tools, and even scarier, how much power Google currently has at the moment.

    Whilst there is no doubt Google are an innovative and forward thinking company, they are ultimately only going to do what suits them.

    Think of how many people rely on Gmail and Google Calendar. As unlikely as it may seem, Google could drop either of these just as they have with Reader. They might generate ad revenue through these services but only if you use the web interface, which many don’t.

    I personally really liked Reader and used its web interface on a daily basis. I am hoping that some awesome open-source project will emerge out of this. I for one would be happy to contribute.

  4. Jimmy Wilson

    Jimmy Wilson

    14 March 2013 @ 02:06PM #

    Your opening sentence mentions the giant elephant we’re avoiding. With all the apps and system integrations, Twitter has largely become an invisible service too. How many of us have complained about the new limits on user tokens for third party apps or ads injected into our timelines? How many of us would be devastated if they announced they were closing in four months?

    We have to support these services (stop using ad blockers, allow ads in 3rd party apps) or move to competitors that charge (and hope they don’t sell out like the Sparrow team). Free is great, I love free stuff, but I love not constantly feeling like the rug is going to be pulled out from under me more.

  5. Vincent


    14 March 2013 @ 06:50PM #

    I also hope that the death of google reader bring a new wave of innovation for RSS services and perhaps a great startup who will revolutionize RSS.

  6. DC Crowley

    DC Crowley

    14 March 2013 @ 08:48PM #

    Dear @Google I bought and paid for Sparrow, I bought and paid for snapseed. I am so pissed off, I have been such a google fan boy. Google reader, iGoogle. When are you shutting down gmail? I have more faith in Microsoft and Apple than you traitors at this moment

  7. albertnikanorov


    21 March 2013 @ 11:11PM #

    RSS feeds was for me a mystery thing/field of (really simple) syndication till I got my profile on GoogleReader and the way of reading/parsing/viewing/searching things re-imagined in a new way, in more simple manner etc etc if just for to try to open a new window for each regular browsing sites. It’s clear.
    But to retire the whole business of RSS reading via just only GoogleReader not to well as well as retire the whole business by logging off from facebook. We’ve (they’ve) a lot of free services to do the same but with not so hot 6 letters. So we’ll see the new way of Reading as I said a couple times earlier, I guess so, I hope so, on GooglePlus new services for Really Simple Syndication :) And if to check the blog itself of GoogleReader I’ve found not so a lot of updated posts, just a few of them. So the problem with that project had begun in earlier days. IMHO :) Thanks for (again) good-full-review! To read your point/opinion not waste of time :) I’m just saying :)

  8. Zingus


    22 March 2013 @ 03:17AM #

    Google is now two things:
    - GoogleX that does self driving cars,and glasses, and builds some future
    - GoogleLarryPage that makes money, sells adspaces, adds black bars over the top of everything, and continues to invest infinite amount of resources in new iterations of the same old boring concept of “webchat” (Google Talk, Buzz, Wave, Hangout, Google Docs chatboxes…)

    So that’s why they closed reader, they had to integrate their mo**king chats some more. Retards.

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