No, The Death Of Google Reader Doesn't Mean 'Free' Doesn't Work

from the lots-of-paid-services-fail-too dept

With the imminent death of Google Reader, I’ve seen a number of people whose opinions I respect quite a bit, say something about how “this shows why paying for software is important,” or, alternatively “why free software isn’t a good idea.” One of many examples of this is Dave Winer’s statement: “Next time, please pay a fair price for the services you depend on. Those have a better chance of surviving the bubbles.” Mike McDerment, CEO of Freshbooks, pointed me to an article he recently wrote about “why free is bad” when it comes to “key” services. I have a ton of respect for both of these guys, and I understand exactly where they’re coming from, but I don’t buy it.

Plenty of “paid” services go out of business as well, and often it’s because not enough people pay. So they shut down. The end result is the same thing. Obviously, services need revenue to survive, and sometimes “free” + some other business model (freemium, ads, something else) won’t bring in enough revenue — and sometimes “paid” won’t bring in enough revenue. Neither business model has a “premium” so to speak on being sure to bring in enough revenue. Each has different benefits and challenges. I’ve seen tons of services launch with a “pay” model, only to get a dozen or so customers and have to shut down. Similarly, there have been free services that have clearly been successful and made lots of money. And lots of things in between.

As we’ve said before there’s nothing ideologically “pure” about a fee-based business model, as opposed to one supported through other revenue streams. If you charge, you’re guaranteed to have fewer users. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a huge challenge. Furthermore, the suggestion that the providers of free services don’t care about their users is not definitively true either. I’m sure it’s true for some services, but I get treated like crap by plenty of fee-based providers as well. Similarly, free-based providers still need to treat users right, or they go away, and there goes their business model, no matter what it is.

Simple point: just because Google couldn’t make a business out of a free RSS reader, it does not mean that business models that have a free component do not work, since, obviously, much of the rest of Google’s business is based on offering stuff for free, and monetizing elsewhere. And, similarly, just because you have a paid app, it does not mean that enough people will pay to make a viable business out of it. In both cases, the situations are basically the same: whatever you do, you need to be able to bring in enough revenue, and that usually needs to involve offering a good product with plenty of benefits. The business model discussion that goes on top of that is interesting, but not defining in the way some people seem to want it to be.

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Comments on “No, The Death Of Google Reader Doesn't Mean 'Free' Doesn't Work”

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Michael Long (profile) says:

Re: Free Google Stuff

Given the response from across the web, I bet tons of people were using Google?s back-end systems as a way to manage and synchronize their RSS news feeds, and then feeding that information into dedicated desktop clients and apps like Reeder, NetNewsWire, and Feedly.

As such, it?s not that Google Reader had no users. It?s that Google got stuck running a warehouse full of servers that delivered information and not web pages. Since they weren?t web pages, there were no eyeballs looking at them, and as such Google had no way to serve up ads and monetize the service.

tracker1 (profile) says:

Re: Just the opposite...

Well, I can say that once Reader and iGoogle are gone, I’m far less inclined to use Google for search. I’d be willing to pay a nominal fee to keep them around.. I’ve already paid for NewsBlur (which is having growing pains in the fallout)… I may find another solution, or set of solutions. That said, the two of them are about 80% of my time online and without them, google looses my eyes (their product).

Anonymous Coward says:

As we’ve said before there’s nothing ideologically “pure” about a fee-based business model, as opposed to one supported through other revenue streams.

There really is no such thing as a “free model” either, and as you advertise as one of your services being tech business consultant, you fully understand that there is no such thing as free.

It is simply an alternative method of revenue raising, Techdirt is exactly the same !! we do not pay you directly for the articles you write and post here, we come here “for free”, yet you still get paid but your income comes from ‘not-direct’ payments, in your case your are paid by page views and add bait profit.

Many businesses fail usually as you state because their revinue income does not meet expectations.

But as someone who knows something about business it is a high risk failure. You can greatly mitigate that risk with a solid and well researched business plan.

Also as you probably know, many factors are out of your control, you don’t know that another company might be doing the exact same thing at the same time, that you cannot factor in your model. Or someone might just be better than you, or you product fails to gain enough support.

It’s not a fixed, one off model and markets and attitudes change, but at the end of the day somehow you have to make enough money to fund it’s existence. This applies exactly the same if ‘free’ or not. Someone has to pay in the end, just like TD has to be paid by someone to exist.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Who pays Mike’s other businesses? For all intents and purposes they appear to be basically, if not unknown, not even remotely close to the profile Techdirt has.

A number of months back there was a discussion on Techdirt about to what extent a blogger should disclose sources of income. More recently I found this. Talk about complete disclosure.

Disclosure Statement | Bottom-up

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In the software market there are millions of programs that are very successful and are free and open source.

I am even writing this post from a free web browser running on a free operating system!

There is a free model. Red hat and Canonical both make lots of money from their free model selling support for software that is completely free and the support that is available completely free online too.

Apple managed to resell a free operating system and make loads of money out of it (albeit with a shiny skin on the front of it).

tomxp411 (profile) says:

Software as a service

It also points out why Software as a Service is a problem.

I discovered Google Reader by accident, and it was the first (and pretty much only) RSS reader I’ve used since then. Whatever reasons Google has chosen to cancel it are largely irrelevant; Google has the power to turn it off – and that’s the problem. If I had a desktop RSS reader, it would be impossible for any company to simply pull the plug and make my reader go away.

I keep hearing about how Software As A Service is so great for the industry; it lets companies build a predictable income and it lets us “finance” our software by paying in small, bite size chunks.

But it also opens the door to having our service interrupted at any time.

For this reason alone – my lack of ensured continuity – I categorically reject the principle of relying on Software As A Service or a cloud platform as my primary way of doing anything.

Fortunately, Reader is a convenience and not a necessity. Before Reader, I simply kept a bookmark folder of daily reading. After Reader, I’ll probably download a desktop RSS reader and start using that.

Either way, this is a huge wakeup call to all those people who look to the cloud as some sort form of software salvation.

The cloud is NOT your friend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the major network TV services (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX) provide free TV signals that can be received with an antenna connected to your TV. They then sell time slots to advertisers in order to earn an income. Hmmm…. TV for free…. Free TV …. I wonder how that’s been working out for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

you pay all the time, with every purchase you make, as the people you are buying things off give money to the TV station (or google) for adds.

So the TV is free, but you pay more for things like TV’s and computers and software, and hamburgers and petrol and EVERYTHING you buy, because the price of the advertising is included in the purchase price of everything you buy.

MrWilson says:

The free RSS reader sites and apps out there that will flourish because of Google leaving the market prove that Google Reader dying is not the death of free RSS readers anyway. The death of one free service doesn’t mean every free service in that market or niche isn’t viable.

Google has a significantly different scale to deal with, and as much I hate their decision (along with the death of iGoogle), I understand that they don’t consider their current number of Reader users, which other free RSS readers would love, “enough.”

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Free doesn't work?

And every one of those programs with the exception of Chrome which is probably financed by other Google products, has a much better paid option you could buy rather than use half assed products made by college kids for a project

What paid programs are better than Winamp, Firefox, VLC, 7zip, Audacity, Truecrypt, and I’ll throw in Avast?

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Free doesn't work?

The base version of PGP was created as free software – and would not have survived otherwise. Having a company making money from pgp at that stage wouold simply have created a target for attack by the authorities.

Winrar is not better than 7 zip – WinraR IS A PAIN precisely because it isn’t free. 7 zip is better by being free. It means I don’t get nagged every time I want to decompress someone else’s file.
Audacity is good enough for my needs so I have no incentive to find out whether there is a better “paid” option out there.

Same is true of PowerDVD vs vlc – in fact all those paid options have one thing in common. They constantly hassle their users to upgrade to a new version and pay more money.

As far as anti-virus is concerned – well if we didn’t have a vulnerable (paid) OS in the first place we wouldn’t need any of them!

ldne says:

Re: Re: Re: Free doesn't work?

You obviously know zero about open source, I dumped windows 5 years ago for linux and my system is more stable and less troublesome today than windows 8 is and I haven’t had a crash that wasn’t directly my own fault since I ditched the blue screen of death, and even those are rare and only when I’m poking around changing things. Audacity is a professional level audio editor, not a kids toy, and film GIMP, a version tailored for film work, was used to generate most of the CGI for the first live action Scooby doo film. In fact, several of the most popular CGI software systems are Linux based. Most open source software isn’t being developed by college kids for a project, it’s developed by professional programmers looking for a hobby and a way to contribute.Oh, and Google itself, the most popular search engine in the world, is Linux based.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Free doesn't work?


I switched from Windows to Linux over a decade ago, because Windows caused me massive data loss.

What I didn’t expect was how much better the overall experience was in almost every respect. I even get much better support with Linux and FOSS than I ever got with commercial software.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

“Free doesn’t work, people need to be compensated for their work and investment.”

Tell that to the people who choose to give their work and investments away for free. And I’m not talking about someone who is banking on using free as a business model. I’m talking about all the professionals and hobbyists who contribute code, time, and effort to open source projects – some of which you have undoubtedly used, whether you knew it or not!

Not everyone is a mercenary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Indeed free is back that’s why Path of Exile “free” is so shitty and will eventually fail.

Wait a minuet! It dose not suck at all in fact it’s fucking the best MMO I’ve played since Diablo 2. Did I mention you can’t pay to win either. What’s up with that? They should be shut down by now but they’re not.

Sourceforge – FREE
GitHub – FREE
Hotmail – FREE
Skype – FREE “Fuck Skype I hate it.”
A billion other things as well! – FUCKING FREE

ryuugami says:

Re: Re:

Path of Exile, you say? Lemme check that…

Wow, I don’t usually play MMOs, but I’ll try this one (after I clear some HDD space to install it…). I can’t believe I haven’t heard about it earlier (though it’s still in open beta), thanks for the heads-up.

From the developers:

Path of Exile is completely free to download and play. We never intend to charge for content or access to the released game. In order to fund the development and continued expansion of Path of Exile, we offer a range of ethical microtransactions that allow you to distinguish yourself in the world of Wraeclast without receiving any gameplay advantage. We are completely opposed to the concept of ?pay-to-win?.

I really hope that they succeed.

Anonymous Coward says:

XML RSS feeders can only take you SO far..

I was just reading about this very topic on Google News, which is great because Mike wrote about it before the mainstream press.

The primary headline article is “Many people used Google to search for information on hemorrhoids last year” yet, it seems that there was an inaccurate RSS feed with keywords like this, or Google News is broken or likely his editor, changed the article after bootstrapping the article was complete.

Either way, I performed a Google Search about Hemorrhoids on Techdirt, and well, there are no articles, but this story about Google Reader is better anyway, and Mike Masnick doesn’t use keywords in neferous ways like this.

Likely, this means Mike is a better reporter than USAToday, which I tend to believe ALL THE TIME.

Anonymous Coward says:


Also free, created by Aaron Swartz.

Since he had the vision to open it, and it is open source, others can continue his work.

Google Reader on the other hand was a closed souce which of course creates problems since nobody can pick up the slack after.

This is where free and open shine.

There is more to free than just putting out for free of course, there are things people wouldn’t touch even for free in this world.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Product Lifecycles

As technology improves and changes some products will become obsolete. If Google believes that RSS feeds are becoming unimportant then dropping Google Reader makes sense because it will not bring eyeballs to Google.

All traditional business models are numbers games of determining how to get people to get, use, or view your product in sufficient numbers to make money from product or service sales or advertising. Get sufficient numbers and the business makes money.

Some freeware is advertising for the producer; it does an adequate job but the paid version does even more.

FOSS projects to be successful must attract both an interested community for support and enough users to provide a viable community and possibly some monetary support.

The fact is products come and go. Some have market niches that are long lasting and others have a much briefer lifetime.

How important will RSS feeds be in the future? I do not know but they could stay around as a secondary service for sometime. One can still find new typewriters because they are very useful in certain situations and there is a large enough market for a few companies to continue making them.

Corwin (profile) says:

It means that CENTRALIZED doesn't work.

What sort of idiots… Look, the only service you can be certain will NOT be stopped is the one you run yourself. So, the client must be the server. Else, it WILL get raided or abandoned or cut off funds or something, at some point.

Now imagine a p2p news-spreader system borne exclusively within the browser. You are the cloud as long as you’re using the site. Theoretically, the system works as long as SOMEone else is using it at the instant you start using it. Sort of NewsTorrent.

There. Problem solved. “I depended on Google and they killed my service, whine whine” – answer: NEVER count on what someone else might stop providing.

Peer-to-peer, flat, mesh network : Problem solved. (The “mesh” part is not all that solved, but “how to build a service that resists everything” is. The answer is “the server is the cloud of users, and crypto-sign everything as if you trust no-one”.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It means that CENTRALIZED doesn't work.

The Internet protocols are designed to be peer to peer, but the use of dynamic IP addresses for domestic customers makes running your own services difficult. Torrent trackers are needed as a means of recording and distributing the current IP address of swarm members.
The use of dynamic IP addresses is the biggest inhibitor of real distributed services.

LINUX says:


I have used Debian linux for my OS, for years,it is all free.I have a free web phone number, I use jitsi as a client, My own rss reader. I even play world of warcraft using wine.It is faster and more stable than windows. You can add or remove services.Debian will run on almost any device.

No wonder Google uses linux, along with most web sites you visit everyday.

gnudist says:

Free can work if that free means "freedom" in addition to "no cost"

Every single piece of software I use has been both high quality AND free(both in the “no cost” and in the liberty sense the FSF), many of which have survived that way for YEARS.

So clearly free does work, more so if it’s free and open so that an abandoned project can be picked up by others who can continue to maintain it.

doubledeej (profile) says:


…it means that relying on Google to keep something around that they don’t make money on doesn’t work.

They’ve introduced a great many of high-profile products over the years, very few of which are actually still around. Other than Search, it is likely that nothing is off the table when it comes to selecting products to get the ax.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

There's free and then there's free

Techdirt often points to free offerings which can then be used to convert some users into buying an upgrade or an additional service/item.

But there’s also free with no intention to wring a monetary exchange from it. I like to talk about those actions more because they broaden our discussions of economic systems.

Maybe Google should have a system where it routinely spins off its services into free products which can exist as free, free-standing entities where no one is compensated for anything. If there is a user base which wants it, why not allow it to keep functioning? Why not donate some cloud space to these entities to keep these free services going?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: There's free and then there's free

I was composing a comment in my mind to make this exact point.

Most of the software I use every day is free, that lack of cost is not a business model on anyone’s part. There is simply no intention of making money at all. I’ve taken part in such projects with others, and have produced a number of such applications (as well as ran a few such websites). This is the best, most reliable sort of free.

Then there is “free” that is part of a larger for-profit business plan. There’s nothing wrong with this, although I don’t consider it really free. It’s just provided at no monetary charge.

People often confuse these two things, and think that all free software must have a money-making aspect to it somehow, somewhere. That just isn’t the case.

Gerald Robinson (profile) says:

"Free Services"

I agree with Anonymous Coward, there is no such thing as a free service. But there are plenty cases where paid services delete features or drop products MS office offers myriad examples. e.g. drop caps. Some are just too much trouble to maintain. I suspect that there are lots of examples like Google Reader that are hard to maintain compared to alternate services that offer more opportunity.

This is why SaaS is a terrible idea. I use Adobe cloud myself but can easily move to Vegas if its discontinued. When you own the product if the cloud service is disrupted or discontinued you can still use the product. If you depend on SaaS then you are sooo screwed!!

BTW there is a do it yourself RSS reader in Perl and another in Python kicking around as programming examples. They are easy to get going but would be a major pain to maintain.

Anonymous Coward says:

missing the point

I find it interesting that the article and discussion are so tight to the “Google didn’t make enough money on Reader” meme.

Is is even about money, or revenue? Google didn’t actually say anything about the metrics other than to indicate a decline in readership. Does Google really measure the worth of services in terms of pure revenue? I tend to doubt it.

I don’t know why they canned it. Maybe the Google+ competition theories are right. Maybe it just took more resources than they wanted t sick into it. Maybe too much of the user base used ad-blockers. Maybe the ecosystem of third party readers “leeching” off the service bothered them.

But not enough revenue? Google not figuring out how to turn eyeballs into money? I don’t buy it.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: missing the point

I don’t know why they canned it. Maybe the Google+ competition theories are right. Maybe it just took more resources than they wanted t sick into it. Maybe too much of the user base used ad-blockers. Maybe the ecosystem of third party readers “leeching” off the service bothered them.

That adds a new perspective to something I wrote. I asked why Google couldn’t just allow this service to be free and run by volunteers? Why not keep it going under someone else’s guidance? But if services like this are somehow a threat to the core business, then perhaps a company like Google wants to kill it rather than liberate it.

Some people have suggested that Google sometimes starts projects more to undermine competitors than to create new businesses for itself. So if it accomplishes that, then perhaps Google sees no reason to maintain the service. Further, if the project has been disruptive, but now no longer benefits Google in any fashion, it might be a strategic decision to remove the product from the market rather than to enable someone else to carry on with it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: missing the point

I asked why Google couldn’t just allow this service to be free and run by volunteers?

Maybe they thought it wasn’t worth the bother, as there are many existing alternatives to Google Reader anyway. The only thing Google Reader really brings to the table is integration with other Google services — something that appeals to a minority of people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google is actually trying to move people to G+

The point missed by the anti-free writers mentioned in this post is that Google is just being hamfisted in trying to grow their flagging G+ user base, by trying force Reader users over to Plus (as has been mentioned in a ton of articles about this issue).

It’s not that free doesn’t work, it’s having a non-compelling application that doesn’t work.

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