A couple of months ago, Google's official blog carried a post called A Second Spring of Cleaning. It started innocuously enough: "We are living in a new kind of computing environment," the blog chirped. "Everyone has a device, sometimes multiple devices."
True enough, Google. And what, in your lovely, friendly, multicoloured way, are you proposing to do about it?
We soon discovered: given this "new computing environment", the blog continued, Google will be closing down a few products. And then came the shock: among the products to be closed was Google Reader. The much-loved RSS service created in 2005 is scheduled for extinction on July 1. Millions of devoted Google Reader users - myself included - descended into a condition somewhere between mourning and blind panic.
For those not obsessed with RSS: it stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it provides a way of subscribing to a website or blog so that each time a new article is published, it is pushed to the subscriber's RSS reader. That reader then becomes one vast list of every article published by every website that you've subscribed to or are interested in: a one-stop information download, which you duly become addicted to and check a zillion times a day.
For those of us in the information industries, RSS is an invaluable timesaver. My Google Reader is crammed full of thousands of sources - from The New York Times to the most obscure blog - amassed over a period of years, and daily interaction with it is central to my work as a journalist. The idea that this carefully nurtured list is to disappear in a puff of smoke on July 1? Unthinkable. (Actually, it doesn't have to disappear: see our alternatives.)
So what is Google playing at? The official line from the company is simple. "Usage of Google Reader has declined," it says, "and as a company, we're pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience."
But is that a satisfactory explanation? Is it even the whole truth? On the former question, many in the blogosphere answered a resounding "no". Outcry swept across the web on news of Google Reader's demise, and a petition to save the service on Change.org currently has more than 150,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, other bloggers pointed to a report from the content aggregator Buzzfeed showing that Google Reader still drives far more traffic to news sites than the search giant's social network, Google+. So Google Reader is in decline, huh?
Ultimately, the picture is likely to be more complex. There are off-the-record, unconfirmed reports that the cost of running the service was becoming an increasing issue.
To monetise Google Reader, runs this argument, Google would have to start collecting data on users; that means wading into difficult privacy territory - a landscape rife with lawsuits and bad PR - and Google is unwilling to do that. While popular, experts say Google Reader is just not popular enough for Google to bother with it unless it generates cash. Nick Baum Former, the former Reader product manager, explained: "My sense is, if it's a consumer product at Google that's not making money, unless it's going to get to 100 million users, it's not worth doing." Meanwhile, in closing Reader, Google may have sensed an opportunity to push millions of users towards Google+, the social network that it hopes can take on Facebook and Twitter. So far, it doesn't seem to have worked out that way: instead, it's an alternate RSS service, Feedly, that seems to have benefited the most. Feedly announced in April that three million new users had joined since the Google Reader announcement.