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Google Reader: A Victim Of The War Between Privacy And Innovation

Google Reader isn’t just what happens when a company turns its back on fans, it’s the toll of lawsuits on innovative products.

Chances are, you’ve read at least one story about the demise of Google Reader, the RSS software that Google maintained free of charge. Most writers have deemed it the end of the world. Truth be told, the importance of RSS is probably being skewed a bit by those of us in digital media who so desperately need to juggle 100 sites at once.

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But the death of Reader was devastating for another, less articulated reason. Google–the company that backed a million tiny, charming projects just because–was cleaning house of one of its better ones. Why would they do it? How could Reader possibly cost that much for a company that ran Maps, Gmail and YouTube? A new report from All Things D reveals the answer:

…the shutdown wasn’t just a matter of company culture and bigger priorities, sources said. Google is also trying to better orient itself so that it stops getting into trouble with repeated missteps around compliance issues, particularly privacy.

That means every team needs to have people dedicated to dealing with these compliance and privacy issues — lawyers, policy experts, etc. Google didn’t even have a product manager or full-time engineer responsible for Reader when it was killed, so the company didn’t want to add in the additional infrastructure and staff, the sources said

So what killed Reader wasn’t technological infrastructure cost–the app didn’t even require management! It was the the defensive costs of legal liability.

Now, you may argue that Reader is less privacy-invasive than other Google products. That may be true. But it’s still a unique experience that requires its own legal assessment and legal upkeep. And to Google, those costs were clearly too great to support a beloved app that made no money.

It’s a frightening precedent for Google fans in the audience. Apple is a 3-ish product company honed for profitability. Google has been the counterpoint, the geek who shared their chemistry kit with Labs, who bought strange one-off companies for seemingly no reason, who toyed with ideas for the very sake of toying with them. Google was perpetually in beta in the most adorable and exciting way.

But the threat of lawsuits will smother many of these small, unprofitable projects. And for what? Our privacy? Ha! You think that you still have any privacy? And do you think anyone really cares?

No, it’s just that, in the new Silicon Valley, it’s the lawyers who get rich.

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[Image: Collection of People via Shutterstock/Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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