Reader and Google’s New Integrated Strategy

March 18th, 2013

Last week, Google announced they are shutting down Reader. Many people were upset by the move, especially because so many of us depend on Reader for reading RSS feeds even if we don’t directly use it. I’ve settled into using NetNewsWire on my Mac (which I have for years) and Reeder on my iPad and iPhone, and this set up has worked very well for a long time. It certainly is a pain to figure out a new workflow.

Some, though, have suggested that Google could charge for Reader or for developer access to its (private, undocumented) API if they really wanted to, so this is more evidence that Google believes so much in free-with-advertising they’d rather forego that revenue and kill the service than keep it around and charge.

I think that’s a misread of the situation. First, Reader was released during a very different part of Google’s history. In 2005, Google experimented with many different services that didn’t necessarily fit an obvious plan; instead, the strategy seemed to be to plant many different seeds, see which ones grew, which ones sprouted beautiful flowers, and which ones didn’t. And even within that environment, Google’s leadership was apparently unsure about Reader from the very beginning. I believe, then, that Google’s mistake was in releasing a product they cared little about, and for refusing to develop it into something more that could contribute to Google’s top and bottom lines. One of Google Reader’s creators, Chris Wetherell, wrote in 2011 that Google was ignoring many opportunities with Reader; specifically, it was a direct publishing mechanism from content creator and audience, and a huge opportunity to direct it toward information junkies (journalists, etc). The opportunity was there, but Google didn’t take it.

That’s a smart criticism, but it’s different than criticizing Google for shutting down Reader. Since Larry Page took over the company two years ago, Google has revamped their products to form a cohesive whole, largely in orbit around Google+, and have eliminated products, projects and teams that don’t fit their new focused strategy. Google’s management team apparently doesn’t believe that Reader is a part of that, and that seems more than valid to me; a pure RSS reader (which is, more or less, what Reader is) doesn’t have much opportunity, whether it’s monetized through a developer API or not (and, to be clear, there’s not much money there anyway). So they cut it, so they can focus their time and resources on projects they believe are important to Google’s future. That’s the right move.

I think this is a tiny part of a much larger movement within Google to follow a more integrated approach with their products. Until 2012 or so, Google used Android as a means to control the mobile market and to commoditize hardware, which together would make Google the dominant company in mobile and put them in position to make it their next big revenue source through advertising. This hasn’t been successful, though. Google makes relatively little from Android while one company—Samsung—makes more operating income from Android than Google as a whole. Think about that! Google is doing the hard work of developing the operating system and applications, but Samsung is capturing all of the revenue and income. Google’s Android strategy failed.

I believe that Google is streamlining and re-focusing its products around Google+ so they can create integrated products. Rather than just create Nexus devices (manufactured by other companies) that have been little more than reference designs, Google instead intends to combine Android/Chrome, their services (Gmail, Maps, Google Now, Google+, et al) with their new-found ability to create great hardware, and create first-class computing devices. Phones, tablets, notebooks, and wearable computing, all designed by Google, under the Google name and sold by Google.

This makes a lot of sense. Not only can Google create better products by doing so, and better push the bounds of the technology industry, but this also answers how they’re going to make money from Android: sell devices. Everyone is better off. Except, of course, for Google’s “partners” on Android. Samsung certainly isn’t, but HTC and the many others that make Android-based phones will be hurt as well. Perhaps Samsung will decide (or already intends to) fork Android and develop their own platform, but I don’t think that really hurts Google at all; Google already receives basically zero benefit from Samsung’s use of Android, so making and selling their own hardware and losing Samsung in the process seems like a worthwhile trade to me.

I want to say, too, that I not only think this is exactly the right thing for Google to do, but it’s exciting that they are. This embraces what makes Google great—their obsession with pushing the bounds of what’s possible in ways that are useful to everyone—but does so with a bring-it-to-market focus. This isn’t the old days of forever “betas” that we are used to; I don’t think it’s any accident that we’ve been hearing so much of Google’s X lab recently, considering that in years past, all of Google was effectively a lab.

Google’s undergoing a transformation before our eyes, and I love where it’s headed. I’ve been quite critical of Google Glass, but it’s part of a much bigger change at Google that I think is not only necessary but positive.