As July 1 approaches, it seems to me that all savvy Internet users can be separated into two categories: those who are ticked off at Google Inc., and those who ought to be.
On Monday, Google will shut down one of its most useful services, Google Reader, claiming that not enough people use it any more. Well, I use it, along with millions of others, and the rest of you should have been.
Google Reader is an aggregator — a service that collects the latest items posted at your favorite websites and displays them on a single page. You sign up for the service using a Google account, then subscribe to your favorite news sites and blogs at the Reader website. Now check in at Reader throughout the day for fresh updates. No longer must you type the addresses of your favorite news, sports, entertainment, or gossip sites. You just go to Reader to view the newest postings from each of them.
Reader uses a technology called Rich Site Summary, or RSS, which was codeveloped by a 14-year-old prodigy named Aaron Swartz. This same Swartz later faced a 35-year prison sentence for sneaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network and swiping some files. He committed suicide in January. A terrible waste.
Meanwhile, Google’s decision to abandon Reader is bizarre. It probably didn’t cost all that much to operate and surely generated a lot of goodwill. And when Google claims there’s insufficient demand for the service, executives at companies like AOL.com and Facebook don’t believe it. Both companies are racing to develop Google Reader alternatives.
But there’s no need to wait. Other aggregators are already here and ready to go. I’ve come across several that ought to satisfy Google Reader loyalists; the rest of you could also profit by checking them out.
Two rather good ones, G2Reader and The Old Reader, run inside a Web browser and are best used on PCs or tablets. Each provides the same general layout as Google Reader, but with a welcome splash of color. The center of the page highlights the newest updates from your favorite sites. But if you’re looking for a specific source, you will find it on the left side of the screen. Click one — CNN.com, for instance — and you’ll get the latest headlines. Click again for a summary of the story, often with photos as a bonus. You also get a link that will open the original Web page in a separate browser tab.
Google Reader fans can quickly convert to either of these aggregators, though it takes a bit of work. One of Google’s best features is Takeout, a service that lets you download a copy of the data you’ve stored with the company. Go to Takeout, download your Reader selections, upload the file to G2Reader or The Old Reader, and you’re all set.
If this is too much trouble, some Reader substitutes can link directly to the service and scoop up your data automatically.
The best-known of the automatic alternatives is Flipboard, a mobile aggregation app for Apple and Android devices that is already used by about 60 million people worldwide. Designed to resemble a glossy magazine, Flipboard offers quick access to hundreds of excellent news sources. It’s also got a link to Google Reader, allowing fans to import their favorites into Flipboard by just touching a few icons.
But the most sophisticated choice is a service called Feedly that’s so good I probably should have been using it all along. For one thing, it’s ultra-accessible. It runs as an app on Apple iOS or Google Android phones and tablets; inside the Chrome, Firefox, and Safari browsers as a free plug-in; and in a browser-based version on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Feedly absorbs your Google Reader feeds when you sign up. It’s got a livelier layout that can display pages in several attractive formats. You can create a magazine-style layout, or show new stories on a series of colorful cards. Feedly also lets you sort the sites into folders — News, Sports, Cute Animals, or whatever. And it adds a translucent “bug” icon in the lower right corner of the screen. Click it to instantly add new sites to your page, or to share pages over Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail.
After finding so many strong alternatives to Reader, I’m almost glad the service is going away. Millions of us already give Google enough personal information to make it a one-stop shopping center for any NSA spy with time on his hands. Perhaps July 1 is a good day to declare our independence.