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December 8, 2012

Google Reader, "Constantly on the Chopping Block"

Buzzfeed has an interesting article about the evolution of Google Reader. While the article mostly focuses on the social features that were removed from Google Reader a few months after Google+ was launched, there are some thought-provoking insights from former Google Reader engineers that reveal why the service has never been a priority for Google and why it can always be discontinued.

"In the beginning, the best word I can use is that Google tolerated the project. Then, they gave it — support is too strong a word. They gave it some thought," said Chris Wetherell, the Googler who started the project. Jenna Bilotta, a former user experience designer at Google, has a slightly different opinion: "Everyone from Google used Reader, from Larry and Sergey to the newest engineers. It's such a beloved project. Still, it was just in this limbo space. It wasn't really supported, but it wasn't actively being harmed."

The difficulty was that Reader users, while hyperengaged with the product, never snowballed into the tens or hundreds of millions. Brian Shih became the product manager for Reader in the fall of 2008. "If Reader were its own startup, it's the kind of company that Google would have bought. Because we were at Google, when you stack it up against some of these products, it's tiny and isn't worth the investment," he said. At one point, Shih remembers, engineers were pulled off Reader to work on OpenSocial, a "half-baked" development platform that never amounted to much. "There was always a political fight internally on keeping people staffed on this little project," he recalled. Someone hung a sign in the Reader offices that said "DAYS SINCE LAST THREAT OF CANCELLATION." The number was almost always zero. At the same time, user growth — while small next to Gmail's hundreds of millions — more than doubled under Shih's tenure. But the "senior types," as Bilotta remembers, "would look at absolute user numbers. They wouldn't look at market saturation. So Reader was constantly on the chopping block."

iGoogle, a much more popular service, will be discontinued next year and Google Reader's infrastructure is used to show feeds in iGoogle. Hopefully, Google Reader will still be available for some time, but it's mostly wishful thinking.

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