The real problem of internet is not Google but free services

Marco Arment recently posted an interesting view on the decision of Google to close the company’s Google Reader product. While I enjoyed reading the article, as I do most of the times I read something authored by Marco, I don’t agree on its focus and I think that Marco gets the wrong conclusion from his analysis.

In summary, Marco connects the closure of Google Reader to the death of RSS and he warns us about Google, Facebook and other big websites’ attempt to centralize internet and its services. Marco concludes his article by saying:

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. “Sunset” it. “Clean it up.” “Retire” it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

I think that the real problem of internet is not Google (and other big websites) but the existence of free services online, under the current tech framework.

Google did not kill RSS. It killed the best cloud syncing system of RSS subscriptions.

RSS is the protocol that websites use to provide their readers with an easy way to follow any update on the website. Instead of asking readers to connect to their websites using a browser and manually checking whether the content of the website has been changed, readers use an RSS client that automatically connects to the websites’ RSS feed and retrieve the updated information, presenting it in a unique UI.

The benefit of RSS has been huge at the time of its invention. Before the RSS, users had to manually check each and every website they followed. After the RSS, users were able to fire up their preferred RSS client and received all the updates of all the websites they were following, all with a single click and in one single window. Pretty cool.

With the advent of mobile devices such as the iPhone and the iPad, the need to access one’s own RSS feeds on multiple devices became important. This is why Google Reader became successful. Google’s product was the first and best example of a cloud syncing system for RSS feeds. Users could store all of their favorite RSS feeds on Google Reader and could access them from anywhere, with different devices all synced together. If I read an article of Marco’s blog on my Mac, the same article would have been marked as read when I accessed Marco’s blog on the iPad or on the iPhone. If I added a blog to my feeds using my Mac, I would have found the articles of this feed when accessing my RSS client on the iPad.

In view of the above, it is clear that Google did not kill RSS. This protocol is still there. Google killed one of the best RSS clients that exist on the internet and it killed the best cloud syncing system for RSS feeds.

Google Reader costs money to maintain

Marco says that Google Reader did not require maintenance and that its cost was small, compared to the cost of other projects that Google is running. While this may be true, we have to remember that Google is a for-profit corporation and while maintaining the code of Google Reader may have not required a lot of work, we have to consider the cost of maintaining a cloud storage for all the subscriptions of all users and the cost of allowing incoming and outgoing API bandwidth. Sure, I am not expecting here a huge cost but it is still a cost and a corporation has the right to evaluate whether it makes sense to continue wasting money.

Also, while the management cost of Google Reader may be a fraction of the total operative costs of the company, I am sure no other smaller company would be willing to absorb this cost. Alternatives to Google Reader, such as Feedly, Digg and so on must find a monetization system if they want to be able to support their own products, otherwise they will fail and they will bring down with them all the users that have migrated to their systems after the closure of Google’s product.

No product can survive without monetization. Sure, a protocol can survive, but RSS itself does not allow any user to follow blogs. You need a client and, more important, you need a cloud syncing system. You need a product.

This brings me to the real scope of this article.

Internet services should not be free

Internet spoiled us. I remember that when I started using internet, at the beginning of the consumer’s adoption of the ‘net, I was shocked at the idea of having so many things to read for free. While before the internet I had to go to my local newsstand to buy a magazine, now I was able to read articles, news, etc. for free.

The s.c. web 2.0 further spoiled us. We started using for free many services, like blog platforms, photo sharing systems, etc. We give it for granted that we have free access to these tools. In some way, we think it’s our right to have these services for free. But this is a major mistake.

As I said before, products can’t exist without monetization. Some of the above mentioned tools, like Flickr or Gmail, continue to exist because their owners benefit from displaying advertisement on these products. In some way, we are indirectly paying for these services by allowing Google et similia to use our information to drive relevant ads to us. Some other tools, like Instagram, can provide us with free services, free products, because they sold themselves to Facebook. If they did not sell to Facebook and if they did not find any monetization system, they would have closed business soon.

These products can be profitable without charging their own users only if they reach big masses. This is why Facebook, Google and company have to concentrate and centralize their services. This is not a bad thing itself, it’s just a survival necessity. Some of these products by themselves would not collect enough users to become profitable under the advertisement model. We can’t complain that these companies are concentrating these services, as long as we want these services to be free.

How to pay for internet services?

So far, pay-for-use internet services have not been successful. We have seen several attempts to solve this problem. Flattr, for example, tried to introduce a system where users can donate money to their favorite bloggers or website. I don’t have data but I don’t have the feeling that this system has been successful, I don’t personally know anyone who uses it or adopted it. App.net is another example of services that we would think should be free (see Twitter) and that someone is trying to charge us for. Again, I don’t have data but I think, from what I read around, that App.net is doing well but it is far from becoming a massively adopted tool and an alternative to Twitter.

I think that the main problem is still the one mentioned above. Users are spoiled. The average user does not want to donate money to his favorite bloggers and does not want to pay $5 a month for a service such as App.net when he can get for free something more popular such as Twitter. But then we can’t complain if Twitter starts using our personal information to drive relevant ads to our account or if Twitter removes beloved features.

The solution?

I think there may be two different solutions to this problem.

  1. We need to change our mindset. We need to realize that if we want a product, we need to pay for it. Free internet can’t continue on its current basis. Sooner or later even the biggest corporations operating on internet right now will have to consider whether they can get enough money for the services they are providing for free. Also, this solution does not solve an ancillary problem: as long as you allow a corporation to control a service, the corporation will be in the position to shut down the service, change its features or affect in other ways the service;
  2. The real solution would be to build a system where any cost associated to a service is supported by users, directly or indirectly. For example, I look at Bittorrent as an example of a solution. Bittorrent allows users to avoid paying for cloud storage, you don’t need anything to share a file with someone else, you don’t need a cyber locker, nothing. Think about decentralizing the Google Reader cloud syncing system between computers using a Bittorrent technology. Think about the same kind of technology being the framework for an open source service such as Twitter. I am not an expert on these things but the feeling is that crowdsourcing could be a solution to internet’s current problem. The sooner we adopt this solution, the sooner we will avoid a predominance of big corporations controlling services and content online and we will be finally in total control of our beloved services.

What do you think?

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