If Google Can't Make Its RSS Reader Work, Why Are Others So Interested?

Feedly, Digg, AOL, Newsblur, and others, are developing their own readers to fill the vacuum caused by Google abandoning RSS Photograph by Marwood Jenkins, illustration by Businessweek.com

The Great RSS Gold Rush of 2013 is reaching fever pitch, despite some serious questions about whether there is really anything of value in them thar hills.

For anyone who hasn’t been following this with pathological focus, here’s the quick version: An RSS reader is a way to pull in feeds of articles from various websites, and people who revel in information overload love them. Google created one, called Reader, six years ago, and as it was state of the art at the time, it essentially took over the market. But then Google decided that several million news junkies weren’t worth its time, and on March 13 said it was getting out of the RSS business, opening the door to a handful of new companies to get in. The climax comes next week, when Google flips the switch and casts out its RSS enthusiasts.

Some might interpret the fact that one of the Internet’s largest, richest companies abandoned this idea as a red flag. Not Feedly, Digg, AOL, Newsblur, and others, which are quickly developing their own readers to fill the Google Reader vacuum. It’s not that they believe everyone wants to immerse themselves in an endless sea of headlines. Instead, they’re betting that the technology will open up larger news-reading markets.

The most high-profile news aggregation projects in recent years have focused on pleasing, magazine-like interfaces, with companies such as Flipboard leading the way. Social sites have also staked their claim. LinkedIn and Facebook are building news products that users consume along with their professional networking and baby-ogling. For an increasingly large portion of Internet users, Twitter has become a personalized news wire. The dominance of Google’s Reader, meanwhile, kept RSS-minded competitors from experimenting.

RSS readers are deceptively complicated—and expensive—technological projects. “At scale, a successful cloud-based reading service entails crawling/monitoring millions of feeds, processing billions of articles a day, keeping the reading history of millions of users, and delivering that data in a fast and secure way, to many types of devices,” says Cyril Moutran, the co-founder of Feedly, one of the most notable non-Google players in the RSS market even before a few months ago.

But with Google out of the way, the investment doesn’t seem so daunting to companies that hope RSS could be a steppingstone to a much broader audience than ever used Google Reader in the first place.

Moutran’s Feedly, which has been in the RSS business since 2008, is positioning itself as the technology on top of which other businesses will build their readers. It has released an open API, and plans to work with publishers to provide advertising and premium content to their own readers. The company says it has figured out how it will make money, but won’t say exactly how. Getting content flowing through its system is step one; Feedly only says that profits will come “at a later stage.”

Digg, on the other hand, is focused on consumers. It acknowledges that RSS in and of itself doesn’t provide a huge business opportunity. In the long term, the company wants to build something that, according to Chief Executive Officer Andrew McLaughlin, “does a really great job of isolating, ranking, sorting, and distilling down any pile of Internet content, big or small, into the things that are most interesting or important to you.” Content might also be sorted by what kind of articles you’ve read, or how long they are, or how much mental energy they take to consume, from academic papers all the way down to animated GIFs. RSS-fueled news binges will serve Digg with valuable data as it develops such a tool.

Digg plans to rely on subscription costs for revenue, charging power users for specialized functions while offering basic services for free.

For Google, RSS was small beans. Yes, Reader had several million loud, loyal followers, but the company is constitutionally focused on “obvious markets that serve hundreds of millions of people,” according to Chris Wetherell, who created Reader. That’s fine for one of the Internet’s largest companies, wrote Wetherell on his blog in 2011, but it is also “a perfect way to avoid the risk of creating entirely new markets which often go through a painful not-yet-serving-hundreds-of-millions period and which require a dream, some dreamers, and not-at-all-measurable luck.”

With Google out of the way, RSS can finally develop to its full potential. Starting next week, we’ll see what that potential is.

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