What was Google Reader?

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Over the last few weeks there’s been many a thing said about replacements for Google’s recently-passed Reader, but some might not be familiar with the product at all.

Although designed for use in Firefox, the RSS icon has been adopted universally.
Although designed for use in Firefox, the RSS icon has been adopted universally.

To get the answer we have to go back to 1999, when really simple syndication (RSS) was first used on the internet, by Netscape. Back then it was just a tool for web creators to syndicate their information with a web giant, since search engines weren’t quite as useful as they are now. RSS automated the process of summarising information on a website, for another website to use as a news feed.

It wasn’t quite a mainstream tool, though, and it wasn’t until 2002 when RSS 2.0 was ratified. In its more advanced form RSS was adopted more readily, and lots of websites would syndicate their content using RSS feeds. Everywhere you looked a website was offering its news feed using the now-synonymous orange icon with RSS feeds. In 2005 Apple officially adopted RSS as the standard for podcasts to be submitted to iTunes, and Google launched Reader – a web-based interface for users to view all their RSS subscriptions in one place.

 

 

 

Your news, now presented in a familiar email interface.
Your news, now presented in a familiar email interface.

Using RSS, Google Reader turned news headlines into an email inbox. You could skim the morning headlines by simply reading the subject line – the headline of an article – and only open those that were interesting. Or save them for reading later. It also made it extremely simple to find the news you wanted. Previously, using RSS desktop software, it was required to manually add the link for a site’s RSS feed. Google Reader simplified everything using the power of Google. The search engine already indexed millions of websites that had RSS feeds, so it offered a search function in Google Reader. Typing in the name of the site you wanted to add would present both that site and suggestions for similar sites. It was even possible to arrange your feeds by category, much like you’d do with email folders. News reading and content delivery changed overnight – at least for those who chose to consume news en masse, using RSS.

Flipboard took RSS and made it pretty.
Flipboard took RSS and made it pretty.

Google Reader innovated, and then it inspired. When the iPad launched in 2010 one of its best applications was Flipboard. While this wasn’t an RSS reader it did follow Google Reader’s example of offering people news headlines in a new format. In later versions Flipboard even added RSS and Google Reader support – it might be pretty, but people still wanted RSS, rather than curated feeds. Since then we’ve also seen many other apps that either offered new ways of consuming news via RSS, curated content, or even apps that plugged into Google Reader. For millions of people across the world RSS, and tools like Google Reader, have become the standard way to consume news.

Thankfully, Feedly has picked up where Google Reader left off. The company behind Feedly has thrown a tremendous amount of resources at the project, even going as far as opening up its API, allowing applications that piggybacked off Google Reader to now use Feedly’s data. Aol and Digg have also joined the fray, with their respective Reader clones. RSS isn’t dead – and the death of Google Reader might just make it more popular than ever.

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