Open or closed – does anything online ever last?

It’s only now, a couple of weeks after the announcement, that I feel I can talk about the demise of Google Reader. Up til now, the whole thing has just been too upsetting. Reader is the site I turn to first in the day, before email or Twitter, and the one I check last as well.

I have about 600 odd feeds pouring into my Reader account which I skim through everyday – some I read in their entirety every time, others I’m happy to just dip into now and again as the fancy takes me. It’s ok – RSS isn’t email, you don’t have to read it all.

Reader is also an important part of my publishing workflow. A lot of people find the links I tweet and the regular posts of links on this blog to be helpful. That’s all driven by Reader and by the stupidly simple act of clicking once to ‘star’ a post. Then, thanks to IFTTT, they get sent to my blog and to Twitter, like magic.

Reader was an app that used RSS feeds, an open standard – excellent! It’s because of this that we can move our subscriptions to one or more of the many possible replacement services that exist or are springing up.

What’s more, Reader was also an API that other apps could hook into. The most used purpose for this was to synchronise the read status of feeds between apps – for example between a desktop and a mobile interface.

For instance, on my laptop I use the Reader web app, but on my phone I use Reeder which always picks up where I left off thanks to Google’s API.

The trouble comes because people came to rely on Google’s Reader API to deliver a service, and development around similar services just stopped. So when Google decided to take their ball home, it meant nobody could play with it any more.

Still, the fact that RSS and OPML are open standards means we have other software options to move our feed lists to, and while they may no longer rely on Google’s vast infastructure and databases, they ought to work well enough to meet most of our needs.

But the point is worth making again – we can only do this because the open standards existed and we all use them – deliberately or not.

The second point is that even when a piece of software like Reader operates using these standards, if people come to rely on them, then control is surrendered in exchange for convenience. That’s fine, as long as we know this is happening and can take steps to regain control when it’s needed.

So, I’m not saying that we should all stop using other people’s services, that we should abandon convenience in favour of control. Just that we should have back ups in place – of our content, sure, but also backup plans so that our activity can carry on even when our favourite tools disappear, as they surely all will do.

We held the latest UKGovCamp at IBM, a venerable old technology company. Will Facebook last as long as IBM? Will Google? Will Amazon?

Best be prepared by assuming probably not.

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.