Hate the new Google Reader? Blame Steve Jobs.

Yesterday, Google started rolling out the new version of Google Reader, which strips the social functionality from it, pushing users towards sharing things over Google+.

I, like many users of Google Reader, am quite disappointed by this change. Google+ is not equal to Google Reader as far as sharing is concerned. For one thing, the interface is entirely different: in the old Reader, one shared things by clicking the “share” button, and that was it.

To share something in the new Reader, you have to click the +1 button, then wait for the popup to appear, select the circle or circles you wish to share it with, then click share. It’s turned a 1 step process into a 4 step process. This is not progress.

(Unnecessary clicking is actually becoming, I think, an endemic problem in Google products – take Google Docs, for instance; to rename a file you have to select the file with the checkbox, click the “more” button, click “rename”, rename the file, and then click OK – alternately, you can open the document, click on the title, type the new name in the box that opens and click OK – in either case, it’s a four-step process for something that should be much simpler. What they need to do is hire Palm’s tap counter – see 11:25 in this video. There’s also a good criticism of the new Reader design from one of the former product managers for Reader. But I digress.)

Beyond the far more tedious process of actually sharing things is the fact that Google+ is not the optimum space for sharing items from your RSS feed. Why? Well, in part it’s due to white space. In Reader, all your items are fairly compactly arranged one after the other for easy and rapid consumption. Google+, on the other hand, wastes space like it’s going out of style. Then there’s the truncation issue: when you shared something on the old Google Reader, if it was from an untruncated RSS feed, the entire article was shared to your friends, so they could read it without having to click through to another site and wait for it to load. On Google+, on the other hand, everything is truncated – images are thumbnailed and all but the shortest of posts are cut-off, requiring readers to click through to read. This is a regression. Good products should make things effortless.

More importantly, however, there’s the fact that the way one shares posts on Google+ is not the same as one does on Reader. One of the things I share a lot of on Google Reader is Texts From Last Night. Many of my friends have commented on how they appreciate having this curated feed, saving them the time of having to dig through the site themselves. Now, this works fine on Google Reader, because it’s built to handle volume – if I share ten items at once, it’s not a big deal. You expect, hundreds, if not thousands of items waiting for you when you log in, in fact. (You can even buy a 1000+ unread items shirt, so common is the phenomenon amongst Reader users). But if I share ten items all at once on Google+, that, frankly, is spam. Overall, I’d say I share somewhere between 15-25 items on Reader a day. Can you imagine having everyone on your Google+ feed sharing that many items?

The problem is that whilst Google seems to have grasped the idea that one has different social circles, they have completely overlooked the fact that there are different social situations. To make an analogy; Google+ is like a house party, whereas Google Reader was like a book club. Now, you can corner a bunch of people at a house party and try and make them discuss Dostoyevsky, but that’s really not what a house party is for – a house party is where you catch up with friends, talk about stupid crap, and check out their cute friends. Similarly, you can show up to a book club with a whole bunch of booze and try and convince everyone to start making out, but that’s not really why they’re there, and they’re probably all just going to get annoyed at you.

So, where does Steve Jobs come into this? Well, if you watch the overtime video of the 60 Minutes interview with Jobs’ biographer, at 1:05 he mentions that when Larry Page was about to become CEO of Google, he approached Jobs and asked him for some advice. Jobs, despite being pretty sour on Google, obliged, and told him this: “Focus. Don’t be like Microsoft, doing products all over the map: figure out what you do best, and keep it focused.

Good advice. And what happened as soon as Larry Page took over Google? He announces that they’re streamlining – “Greater focus has also been another big feature for me this quarter–more wood behind fewer arrows“. So services get shut down – Buzz, Labs, Aardvark… and, of course, Reader’s social functionality gets merged with Google+. Page wants Google to focus, and so they are.

But there are a few problems with this. In that same interview, the biographer mentions that Jobs met with Bill Gates near the end, and Gates told him “You proved that your model works.” – but what he later added to the biographer was that “it only works if you’ve got a Steve Jobs.

Focus is good, and focus is important, but you shouldn’t try to be Steve Jobs unless you’re Steve Jobs.

The other problem is that Page only seems to have heeded the first part of the message, and completely missed the second, far more important part: figure out what you do best, and keep it focused. What does Google do best? Social? Cloning other services? They tried (and failed) that with Buzz, and despite managing a slightly better showing on Google+, I suspect it’s going to go the same way. (In fact, I cant help but feel like this move to force Reader users to share on Google+ is just a way to drive more activity to the service because it’s not growing like they want it to). Google+ is, for the most part, just another Facebook. And people don’t need, or particularly want, another Facebook. I’m all for competition in the marketplace, but this is not Google doing what Google does best.

So what is that which Google does best? Well, we already know that; it’s been right in front of us the entire time: Google Reader. As my friend James commented – Google have, in fact, just killed the only successful social network they’ve ever made. It may never have had the same popularity as Facebook or Twitter, but you only have to look at the multiple protests that people are holding to see that the people that did use it loved it. That’s the kind of user loyalty companies should kill for. After all, despite the enormous amount of noise people make every time Facebook updates their interface, when has anyone actually staged a protest in front of their offices? Google, despite neglecting Reader for over 2 years, making basically no updates or improvements, nonetheless still managed to completely dominate the market for RSS readers; as we users of Google Reader are now discovering, looking around to realise, in surprise, that there is no comparable alternative product. So much so that some users are now rebuilding it from the ground up.

That’s an insane level of loyalty. That’s a sticking-with-Apple-in-the-late-90’s level of loyalty. And if Larry Page really wants to be Steve Jobs, that’s what he should be cultivating, and then he should figure out a way to sell it to the other 99% of the population. Because that’s what Steve would do.

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm  Comments (3)  
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