Well, if we didn’t get it before, we get it now: Google giveth, and Google taketh away.
On July 1, it will take away Google Reader. To the dismay of millions, that service will go the way of Google Answers, Google Buzz, iGoogle, and GOOG-411. Google hasn’t provided much in the way of a satisfying reason for this “spring cleaning,” saying only that “usage has declined.”
This column is intended to help two kinds of people: Those who used Google Reader, and those who never even knew what it is.
Google Reader is what’s called, somewhat geekily, a newsreader, or painfully geekily, an RSS aggregator.
It’s like an online newspaper you assemble yourself from Web pages all over the world. Instead of sitting down at your desk each morning and visiting each of your favorites sites in turn — say, nytimes.com, Reddit.com and HuffingtonPost.com — you just open reader.google.com. There, you find a tidy list of all the new articles from all of those sources, organized like an email Inbox. You skim the headlines, you read summaries, you click the ones that seem worth reading.
Occasionally, you can read the entire article without leaving the newsreader page; that’s up to whoever published the article. Usually, though, you see the headline of each item and a quick description of the article, or maybe the first few paragraphs and an accompanying picture.
One click takes you to the originating Web site. It’s all much faster and more efficient than wading through the ads, the blinking, and the less interesting articles on the originating Web sites themselves.
There was a huge outcry when Google announced the imminent death of Reader — petitions, blogs, the works — but you might not immediately understand why. Google Reader is notoriously ugly. It’s fairly complicated and busy.
It is, however, complete, customizable, and convenient. And once you’ve set up your preferred sources of reading material, they show up identically on every computer, tablet, and phone. The masses may not have used Reader or even heard of it, but information devotees, news hounds, and tech followers loved it.
They needn’t mourn. Google Reader has plenty of rivals and satisfying replacements. In fact, I fully intended to offer capsule reviews of each of them, until I realized that six presidential administrations would pass by the time I finished.
Newsreaders are available for every kind of phone, tablet, and computer: Bloglines, NewsBlur, Pulse, Taptu, Reeder, FeedDemon, Spundge, Good Noows, HiveMined, Prismatic, Netvibes, NetNewsWire, ManagingNews, and so on. Some are Web pages like Google Reader; others are stand-alone programs or apps. Some email programs can subscribe to these feeds, too, dropping them right into your inbox.
The one everybody keeps saying is the natural heir to Google Reader, though, is Feedly.com. In fact, Feedly says the ranks of its 4 million users have swelled to 7 million since Google’s Reader death sentence was announced.
It requires a free plug-in for the Firefox, Chrome, and Safari browsers. Three factors in particular make it useful.
First, the biggie: Simply logging into Feedly with your Google name and password instantly re-creates your Google Reader setup. All of your news sources, favorites, and tags — category names that you can apply to certain articles, for ease in rounding them up later — magically show up in Feedly, ready to use. The synchronization is two-way; until July 1, you can bounce between Reader and Feedly to your heart’s content, and your newsreader worlds will look identical.
(Behind the scenes, Feedly relies, believe it or not, on Google Reader’s feeds. But the company says it will seamlessly replace Google’s feeds with its own source by July 1.)
Second, Feedly is much nicer-looking than Google Reader. It does a better job with typography — Google does no job at all — the layout is more attractive, and it offers more views of your news.
For example, Feedly can display your feeds exactly the way Google does, in a text-only list; click something in the list to expand and read it right there in the list. But it can also display your articles in much more visual ways. There’s Magazine view (a list of descriptive blurbs, each with a small photo next to it); Cards view (photo and blurb appear on what looks like playing cards filling the screen); and Full Articles view (you don’t have to click to expand anything — each scrolling vertical block shows as much of the article as is available).
Ex-Googlers may start out with the text-only list (Titles view), because that’s what they’re used to. But they may eventually develop the courage to try one of the more visual, more interesting views.
Third, Feedly offers fantastic ways to subscribe to stuff.
■ Way 1: As you surf along, whenever you find a Web site that looks good, you click the small, transparent Feedly button that appears in the lower-right corner of your Web browser — at least if you use Chrome or Firefox. Feedly says it’s working on bringing its button to Safari.
■ Way 2: When you’re on Feedly’s page, click the magnifying-glass icon to view a curated table of contents — a list of subscribe-worthy sites in categories like Tech, Business, News, Cooking, YouTube, Etsy, and so on. Click what looks good.
■ Ways 3, 4, 5: Click that same icon and type, into the box at the top, a Web address, a Web site’s name or even a topic. Choose from the results Feedly presents.
As with Reader, Feedly offers all kinds of ways to manage your subscriptions. You can tag them, put them into folders by category, or click a Save button that flags an article as something you want to revisit later.
When you’re reading an item you particularly like, a tidy row of buttons let you broadcast the link of your find to Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, or email. Alas, Feedly doesn’t let you add Twitter and Facebook feeds to your news stream, too.
It’s all pretty great, especially when you consider the great-looking, fluid, free Feedly apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Frankly, for most people, Feedly is better than Google Reader.
Feedly knows, however, that it’s not perfect. For example, you can apply only one tag to each item. And you’ll never figure out how to remove a tag from your list — you have to go into Preferences — because Feedly doesn’t offer the usual shortcut menus that Google Reader does, where you can right-click anything to get a list of options like Delete and Rename.
The control bar that offers different views, like Magazine and Cards, doesn’t always appear.
You have to sign into Feedly with an existing Google account.
Finally — and here’s the big one — Feedly doesn’t work in Internet Explorer, which locks out a lot of potential customers. And in the browsers that do work, you have to install a tiny “bookmarklet” (a plug-in), which is against the rules at some corporations and public computers.
Feedly is feverishly working to address these limitations; it takes the mantle of Reader Successor seriously. Indeed, some of the best features have been added recently, in an effort to accommodate Reader refugees. (If you’re among them, here are Feedly’s tips for an effortless transition.
But in the meantime, Feedly is a lovely, easy-to-use service for two categories of people: those who once used Google Reader, and those who’ve never heard of it. Because if you’re still starting your day with a zigzag through a standard set of Web sites, you’re wasting time and energy.