Google, the company who conquered the Internet by making a business out of giving things away for free, decided to drop its Google Reader service a few months ago. The official reason was “declining use”, but the subsequent Internet outcry suggests that Reader had a healthy user base. Internet has-beens AOL and Digg saw a golden opportunity to bring their brands back into relevance and immediately began working on replacements for Google Reader. We are now three days away from the demise of our beloved RSS reader, and I had the opportunity to try out the beta versions of both companies’ offerings.
Digg started its public engagement efforts almost immediately after Google’s announcement. It asked people to give suggestions on what they want to see in an RSS reader and posted updates along the way to remind people that Digg Reader was slowly but surely on its way. It was clearly a deliberate effort to breath some life into what was once the top site for crowd-sourced news aggregation.
While an admirable effort given the time constraints, the beta product I tried was clearly hastily rushed out of the door in order to meet Google Reader’s July 1st shutdown. It took almost a minute to import my feeds from Google Reader, a task that took all the other RSS readers I tried less than a few seconds. Only two views are offered, a list view and an expanded view. Tons of features are missing, including the bare minimum of displaying the number of unread articles in each subscription. Half of the feeds are missing their favicons for some inexplicable reason.
First impressions are important, and in this case there is really nothing compelling about Digg Reader for me to come back.
Of the two, AOL Reader is by far the better product. The only real complaint I have about it is the choice of font on the left sidebar. I don’t think that MuseoSans-700 works well at that size, but then I again I suppose this is not a problem for most people who do not have that font installed. It appears from a quick inspection of the source code that AOL is not actually using Typekit to serve the web font, so I guess it should default to Helvetica or Arial for most people, both better choices than Museo Sans (at this size).
Feature-wise, AOL Reader seems fairly competent. There are four views (list, card, pane, full). The usual features are pretty much all there. And to the credit of both Digg and AOL, the
k keyboard shortcuts work.
It’s a Trap
Really, it’s not that hard to make an RSS reader. Nobody wants that anything super fancy and everyone is pretty much looking for an exact copy of Google Reader. It was very feasible for a small team to start from scratch in March and deliver a full product in June into the hands of proven users actively looking for a replacement. This is a good explanation for why companies like AOL and Digg were so eager to throw their hats into the ring. Personally, I think it’s all one huge trap.
Google Reader is 8 years old. Google is a company that excels at making money by providing free services to users and extracting value from them in the process. But even Google could not find a way to make Reader profitable. It added advertising to feeds in 2009 and clearly that was not enough. Theoretically, a user’s RSS subscription should be a great way to infer the user’s interests and taste, but even that data is not valuable for Google to keep the service going.
Now you can argue that Google is not infallible and maybe they did not try hard enough or had a clear vision of how Reader could integrate with its social platforms. Maybe…but I am skeptical. The problem with an RSS reader is that people who use it tend to also be people who hate too much “social” integration. We want our reader to be a simple and functional tool that lets us read our RSS feeds quickly. There is a barrier of entry to using RSS feeds that makes it somewhat of a self-selective user base.
So once you have a couple of hundred thousand users and they each subscribe to a whole bunch of RSS feeds that you have to keep updated with your server farm, what do you do with it? Digg obviously wants to become relevant in the social news business while AOL is clearly hoping for some spillover into its online services, but I get the feeling that they might just eventually come to the same conclusion that Google did: the RSS aggregation business is not easy to monetize.
In any case, neither Digg’s nor AOL’s offering can hold a candle to Feedly, a full-featured aggregator with a history almost as long as Google Reader’s. Feedly used to be a frontend client for Google’s API but now provides its own cloud based service for managing your RSS subscriptions. It also has a compatible API which means that many RSS clients that fetched their data from Google can make a seamless instant transition to Feedly.
Feedly is a much more polished product and has pretty much everything anyone ever wanted from Google Reader. It is also in active development and is available for both iOS and Android, in addition to being a Chrome extension and a simple web application. At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that AOL and Digg will be able to bring anything special (AOL Mail integration? Digg buttons?) to the table that would actually appeal to the RSS crowd.
The war might be over before it even began.