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What Google Reader’s Shutdown Teaches Us About Web Apps

You can’t go anywhere on the web without hearing about Google Reader’s shutdown. There are a number of lessons to be learned, but “never use any Google product ever again” isn’t the right lesson to draw.

Web apps and connected services are different from other apps. You can still use old desktop applications long after the companies go out of business, but once a company decides to pull the plug on a web app, it’s over.

Ensure You Can Export Your Data

Whenever you store important data with a web service – whether it’s feeds in Google Reader, notes in Evernote, files in Dropbox, emails in Gmail, music playlists in Spotify, or photos on Flickr – you should ensure that the service lets you easily export your data so you can migrate to another service.

Google Reader passes this test, allowing you to easily export your feeds as a standard OPML file that can be imported into other RSS readers. Google in general is one of the best companies at allowing you to export your data and the “Data Liberation Front” team at Google provides documentation on exporting your Google data and tools like Google Takeout.

At the moment, people can rightly be skeptical of Google’s new Keep note-taking service because it doesn’t yet provide a way to export your notes. Until Google Keep provides a way to easily export your notes should it ever shut down – or should you decide to switch to another note-taking service – it’s a good idea to exercise some caution.

Lesson: Before you become invested in a web app and fill it with your data, ensure you can easily export your data so you don’t lose it.

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Have a Backup Plan

Try to avoid depending on any one service where there aren’t alternatives. While there are alternative RSS readers, there aren’t alternative RSS feed syncing services and other companies are scrambling to create their own syncing solutions. Luckily, there are a multitude of competing RSS reader applications.

Be careful of depending too heavily on a type of service that has no alternatives. If you depend on something, be aware of the alternatives – they’re your backup plan if the service you depend on closes. It may be a good idea to support the alternative, just to ensure the market stays healthy and a single solution doesn’t corner the market and then close up shop, as happened with Google Reader.

Lesson: Don’t depend on a single solution with no alternatives, as the feed-syncing applications depended on Google Reader.

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Beware Stagnation and Products That Don’t Fit a Company’s Vision

Google isn’t the only company that closes web services people use. Recently, Microsoft shut down Windows Live Mesh, a file-synchronization tool that overlapped somewhat with SkyDrive, and Apple shut down Ping, a social network that never made any sense.

While many information addicts still depended on Google Reader, the reality is that Google Reader had been stagnant for years – the only changes that happened were the removal of features like built-in sharing or web page monitoring. For years, Google Reader has clearly not been a priority to Google, and they have gradually moved all its developers to other products.

In these ways, Google Reader is like Windows Live Mesh and Ping – a neglected service that neither company saw as strategically important to their business. Many people thought Google would keep supporting Google Reader out of a desire to not alienate the early adopters and information addicts who used it, but no one thought Google loved Reader and was devoting resources to see it succeed.

Web apps are more at risk than desktop applications. Google Reader wasn’t just an RSS reader running on peoples’ computers, it was a service taking up processing power and storage on Google’s servers.

Lesson: If a service is stagnating and isn’t a priority to its company, be ready for it to go on the chopping block – whether it’s made by Google or anyone else.

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Everything We Use Today Will Go Away

This may be the hardest lesson to swallow, but accepting it is crucial because Google Reader isn’t the last product you depend on that will be closed one day. Everything is impermanent, as the Buddhists would say. Think about how many services you use today that you used ten years ago, and think about all that can happen in another ten or twenty years. While people would be silly to argue Google may close Gmail tomorrow, Gmail may be gone in 20 years, as may many of the services we use today.

In a long enough time frame, all the services we use today will go away; it’s just a matter of when. Evernote tries to allay fears about shutdowns by advertising itself as a “100-year company,” and their focus on preserving users’ data for a long time is commendable. Evernote probably is the most stable place to keep your notes for the long haul, but Evernote provides no guarantee that your data will still be around in 100 years. If another type of note-taking service becomes popular and Evernote has trouble raising money, the company may not exist 10 years from now.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use Evernote or any other web app – but accept that everything is going to go away at some point and you’ll have to adapt.

Lesson: Everything we use today will be shut down at some point; it’s just a matter of time. Be prepared to let go and move on.

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Google Reader’s shutdown may feel like a punch to the gut for many of its most devoted users, but this won’t be the last time a service we use shuts down. Watch out for the warning signs, be prepared to take your data to a competing service, and move on.

Image Credit: Rebecca Siegel on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/26/13

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