Marco.org • About ▾

I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Lockdown

Officially, Google killed Reader because “over the years usage has declined”.1 I believe that statement, especially if API clients weren’t considered “usage”, but I don’t believe that’s the entire reason.

The most common assumption I’ve seen others cite is that “Google couldn’t figure out how to monetize Reader,” or other variants about direct profitability. I don’t believe this, either. Google Reader’s operational costs likely paled in comparison to many of their other projects that don’t bring in major revenue, and I’ve heard from multiple sources that it effectively had a staff of zero for years. It was just running, quietly serving a vital role for a lot of people.

This is how RSS and Atom have always worked: you put in some effort up front to get the system built,2 and in most instances, you never need to touch it. It just hums along, immune to redesigns, changing APIs, web-development trends, and slash-and-burn executives on “sunsetting” sprees.3

RSS was the original web-service API. The original mashup enabler. And it’s still healthy and going strong.

Mostly.

RSS grew up in a boom time for consumer web services and truly open APIs, but it especially spread like wildfire in the blogging world. Personal blogs and RSS represented true vendor independence: you could host your site anywhere, with any software. You could change those whenever anything started to suck, because there were many similar choices and your readers could always find your site at the domain name you owned.

The free, minimally restricted web-service-API era has come and gone since then. As Jeremy Keith wrote so well a few weeks ago (you should read the whole thing), those days aren’t coming back:

But [Facebook] did grow. And grow. And grow. And suddenly the AOL business model didn’t seem so crazy anymore. It seemed ahead of its time.

Once Facebook had proven that it was possible to be the one-stop-shop for your user’s every need, that became the model to emulate. Startups stopped seeing themselves as just one part of a bigger web. Now they wanted to be the only service that their users would ever need… just like Facebook.

Seen from that perspective, the open flow of information via APIs — allowing data to flow porously between services — no longer seemed like such a good idea.

(He also addresses RSS. Read it. I’ll wait here.)

This isn’t an issue of “openness”, per se — Twitter, for instance, has very good reasons to limit its API. You aren’t entitled to unrestricted access to someone else’s service. Those days are gone for good, and we’ll all be fine. We don’t need big web players to be completely open.

The bigger problem is that they’ve abandoned interoperability. RSS, semantic markup, microformats, and open APIs all enable interoperability, but the big players don’t want that — they want to lock you in, shut out competitors, and make a service so proprietary that even if you could get your data out, it would be either useless (no alternatives to import into) or cripplingly lonely (empty social networks).

Google resisted this trend admirably for a long time and was very geek- and standards-friendly, but not since Facebook got huge enough to effectively redefine the internet and refocus Google’s plans to be all-Google+, all the time.4 The escalating three-way war between Google, Facebook, and Twitter — by far the three most important web players today — is accumulating new casualties every day at our expense.

Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything.5 While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

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.

We need to keep pushing forward without them, and do what we’ve always done before: route around the obstructions and maintain what’s great about the web. Keep building and supporting new tools, technologies, and platforms to empower independence, interoperability, and web property ownership.


  1. Over the years, comma usage after prepositional phrases has also apparently declined. 

  2. Then you spend twice as much time figuring out how to deal with poorly crafted feeds, ambiguities, and edge cases — especially for Atom, which is a huge, overengineered pain in the ass that, as far as I can tell, exists mostly because people always argue with Dave Winer and do their own contrarian things even when he’s right, because they can’t stand when he’s right. 

  3. They never hear about it, and don’t know what it is if someone starts explaining it. To most “business” people, RSS might as well be NTP or SMB. “Something the servers do.” 

  4. This plan is particularly problematic because Google+ is, relatively, a clear failure so far. 

  5. Apple dragged Google into a similar war for extreme mobile-OS lockdown — that’s why Google had to do Android. 

A Thicker Hope

iOS 7 beta 3 came out this morning with a surprisingly major change: as I first saw reported by Sebastiaan de With and later more specificially identified by Neven Mrgan, the system font has allegedly been changed from Helvetica Neue Light to Helvetica Neue (regular).1 Compare:

It’s a subtle change in theory, but it has a huge effect — see for yourself. This paragraph is in Helvetica Neue Light if you’re on a device that has the Helvetica Neue family. (If not, you probably don’t care about fonts, so it will be Comic Sans.)

It’s a subtle change in theory, but it has a huge effect — see for yourself. This paragraph is in Helvetica Neue if you’re on a device that has the Helvetica Neue family. (If not, you probably don’t care about fonts, so it will be Comic Sans.)

See? Light weights look cool (moreso at larger sizes) and work well in advertising and logos, but are generally harder to read. The system font’s most important job is to be legible to as many people as possible in as many conditions as possible, so the previous choice was simply a bad design choice.

It represented one of Apple’s biggest recurring flaws: letting cool come before functional.2 With Ive’s new role leading UI design, I was afraid that we were in for a long series of such failures. And with iOS 7 being unveiled so publicly and confidently, I really didn’t think any decisions as significant as the system font would change before release.

Now, we know otherwise.

Apple’s stated design philosophy of iOS 7 was “clarity, deference, and depth”. They nailed deference and depth, but clarity has suffered in many big and small ways.

While the too-thin font was far from the only design flaw in iOS 7, I’d say it was the biggest. Just as the new APIs in iOS 7 were clearly the result of Apple listening to all of us, we now have a sign that they’re listening on the design front as well.

The best thing for us to do is to continue to make noise about the remaining issues.


  1. Naturally, as an NDA-bound developer, I cannot confirm this. Let’s assume it’s true for this post. 

  2. We discussed this in ATP 19 at 1:02:45. Start at 57:45 if you have a few more minutes. 

Effecting Change From The Outside

I ended A Thicker Hope with this:

While the too-thin font was far from the only design flaw in iOS 7, I’d say it was the biggest. Just as the new APIs in iOS 7 were clearly the result of Apple listening to all of us, we now have a sign that they’re listening on the design front as well.

The best thing for us to do is to continue to make noise about the remaining issues.

In response, nervousMONSTER wrote:

Do you really think this had anything to do with bloggers bitching?

In short: Absolutely. (Also, “bloggers” doesn’t really mean anything anymore: this had something to do with people writing and talking about it.) To understand why, it helps to understand how Apple works.

Apple isn’t a waterfall dictatorship. It’s a company full of many smart people at all levels, and while those people are generally in agreement on high-level philosophies and priorities, they often have different ideas that need to be resolved through experimentation, debate, or executive order.

From what we can tell from the sidelines, the “executive order” option doesn’t seem to happen as often as the casual observer may think: even Steve Jobs, one of the most qualified people in history to make effective executive orders, was frequently swayed by good arguments. Apple does some things because a higher-up feels like it, but in most cases, they arrive at decisions only through internal debates that we rarely hear about.1

Since Apple is just people, they’re usually trying to figure out the best answer to the same decisions and trade-offs we argue about on the outside: what’s best for the user, what’s best for battery life, what apps should be allowed to do, how multitasking should work, how far sandboxing should go, and so on. Almost any decision that causes controversy on the outside has almost certainly caused just as much on the inside, it’s probably still being argued, and the decision probably isn’t set in stone.

We can’t participate directly in those debates, but we can provide ammo to the side we agree with.

I’ve heard a number of times in the last few years that something I wrote was circulated within Apple or brought up in an internal discussion, usually to support one side of a debate. And it’s very unlikely that Marco.org is the only site that Apple employees read. (Less pointedly, filing bugs or enhancement requests is also used as a sort of voting system that also informs internal debates.)

Obviously, it’s mostly only productive to argue positions that Apple may feasibly take, and only in arguments that they’re actually having. And time is critical: it’s a lot easier to change parts of iOS 7 now than in October. But our opinions definitely matter.

We can effect change if we’re pushing for what’s best for Apple and its customers. Apple doesn’t get everything right every time on its own.


  1. Allowing the best ideas to prevail over initial executive decisions is different from design-by-committee. In design-by-committee, too many people have equal control (or veto power) over the output. Apple doesn’t appear to work that way: a very small number of higher-ups still have the power to make most decisions as they see fit, but they’ll consider valid arguments to the contrary and be willing to change their minds for the sake of making better products.

    Steve Jobs had that quality, but I think Tim Cook might be even better at it.

    We’ve seen a number of reports that Scott Forstall was “difficult to work with”. If that included being inflexible and unwilling to let the best ideas prevail over his own, Cook’s firing of Forstall to “increase collaboration” looks quite good so far. I believe we’re seeing a clear reduction in capricious or arbitrary decisions making it into the products. 

Post-Reader RSS Subscriber Counts

In the wake of Google Reader’s shutdown, I rewrote my feed-stats script to be more accurate and produce more relevant output formatting.

I was happily surprised to see the top stats for my site:

Subscribers App/Service Reporting
45,565 Google Reader Reported total
16,000+ Feedly (See below)
8,959 NewsBlur Reported total
4,164 NetNewsWire Unique IPs
2,765 Feed Wrangler Reported total
2,574 Feedbin (See below)
2,477 The Old Reader (See below)
1,301 Stringer Unique IPs
1,227 Reeder (direct) Unique IPs
1,203 Fever Unique IPs

Google Reader’s crawlers are still running, but as far as I know, nobody’s seeing the results, so they don’t really count.

Feedly does not yet report subscribers in its User-Agent string, but were receptive to the idea when I suggested it by email. They queried one of the database segments and reported that my current subscriber count is over 16,000. Given that they appear elsewhere to be the most popular new service, and they’re one of the few free options, this number is plausible relative to the paid alternatives.

Feedbin and The Old Reader both plan to add subscriber reporting soon, and gave me my subscriber count by email.

In addition to those, AOL Reader and Digg Reader currently do not report subscribers. Please help me pressure them to add a subscriber count to their User-Agent strings1 — it’s important for publishers to know how many people are invisibly subscribed behind one-to-many crawlers like these.

Anyway, total reported subscribers are split almost equally between Google Reader and non-Google-Reader options:

45,565Google Reader
48,236All others

I can’t reliably compare site traffic since I published an extremely popular post just one day after Google Reader’s interface and API were shut down, but so far, it doesn’t appear that site traffic is noticeably down.

Attention to the feed also appears healthy: this week’s sponsorship post generated a strong number of responses and may have been partly responsible for overloading the sponsor’s site shortly after it was published.

It’s still a little early to say for sure, but so far, it looks like most of this site’s former Google Reader subscribers have found alternatives and remained subscribers.

I’d love to hear from others: How have your subscribers fared?


  1. The standard format is simply including “N subscribers” somewhere in the User-Agent. 

A Programming Hobby

Wow, this essay by Matt Gemmell is good:

I’ve come to a point in my life where I hesitate before telling people I’m a software developer. Am I, really? The answer is more complicated than I expected.

This really hits home for me. I’m not as far toward “writer” and away from “software developer” as Matt is, but I’m probably halfway there.

I’ve always defined myself as a programmer, but I’ve never been happy just programming. I’d hate to work on a large development team where that was my only role — in fact, the idea of writing code full-time for anyone doesn’t appeal to me anymore.

I love doing it as a means to a larger end, but I’m just not that into it as a profession anymore. In many ways, I always kept my distance a bit, never caring much for advanced methodologies, studying design patterns, proving algorithms, or learning cutting-edge languages before they’re stable and practical. I’ve always written code for the sake of making the product I wanted, not for the code’s own sake.

And for about the last six months, I’ve hardly written any code at all. Between selling Instapaper, running and then selling The Magazine, writing this site, co-hosting a very successful new podcast (and learning how to edit, publish, and monetize it), and trying to spend a healthy amount of time with my family, there hasn’t been much time left for development.

Am I really a programmer anymore?

To borrow from and paraphrase Merlin Mann (hopefully accurately), you are what you actually do, not what you think or wish that you did. So far, in 2013, I’m really a writer and podcaster (and, to an embarrassing degree, a Twitter user) with a programming hobby.

This is why I’ve been so aggressive about trying to get things off my plate: I’ve written and podcasted for years without issues, but for the last six months, I’ve basically replaced software development with paperwork, business and legal overhead, and bullshitting on Twitter.

And I’m going to need to change that if I want to launch anything again.

The Nexus 7 2 and the Android tablet-usage gap

The Kindle Fire first defined the shitty-7-inch-tablet-for-$200 category. Last year’s Nexus 7 showed the world that it was possible to hit the same price point while shipping something halfway decent, but it hasn’t aged well even after just one year.

Here’s hoping its new successor ages better. The screen sounds great, at least:

The tablet’s specifications are largely in line with recent speculation: its 7-inch screen has an increased resolution of 1920×1200, retaining the previous tablet’s 16:10 aspect ratio.

While I don’t care for such a skinny aspect ratio at that size, I’d love to see a pixel density like that on the iPad Mini.

As we know with the iPad 3 and 4, high-DPI tablets to date have needed to make substantial trade-offs to drive those panels. The results have been mixed at best: the Retina iPads are bulky and (relatively) expensive, and most high-DPI Android tablets have suffered from poor GPU performance or other issues.

Just as the first Nexus 7 showed that a previously terrible category could be done better, I wonder what the new Nexus 7 will tell us about the feasibility of a Retina iPad Mini this year.

Also, Google is claiming that half of all tablets sold so far in 2013 run Android. John Gruber asks a great question:

I’m curious how Google squares these claims with all the usage share numbers that show Android tablets at far below 50 percent. Either the usage share numbers are wrong, or people just don’t use the Android tablets they buy.

John Moltz gave the best answer I’ve seen:

…if you were not entirely committed to tablet computing, wouldn’t you be likely to buy the cheapest tablet available? And when the user experience doesn’t wow you, you tend not to use it. It’s obviously not like that for everyone but I wonder if that doesn’t explain some of this.

Another potential contributing factor: I’ve often heard from people who bought Nexus 7s or Kindle Fires as cheap tablets to give others, usually their children, spouses, parents, or grandparents. Children are less likely to show up in web-browsing and e-commerce marketshare surveys, and giving cheap tablets to adults who didn’t already use tablets on their own — and therefore aren’t necessarily committed to using them — might increase the chances of them being used very lightly or abandoned.

I own two 7” Android tablets — one shitty Kindle Fire and one halfway decent Nexus 7.1 I bought both primarily for Instapaper testing and secondarily “to play around with.” Granted, I’m not the typical user, but they’ve both sat in my closet, unused, since a couple of weeks after getting each. I bet this story is common among geeks like me, at least.

I’d be tempted to get the new Nexus 7 “to play around with”, but last year’s model sitting in my closet2 reminding me I’ll never use it is a very effective deterrent.


  1. I previously owned a shitty Nook Tablet as well, also for Instapaper testing, but have since sold it (lol) for almost nothing.

    Still, that’s three Android tablets sold to someone who isn’t even an Android user. Sure, I’m an edge case. But add up enough of these edge cases and you start to explain the huge gap between claimed marketshare and real-world usage. 

  2. I offered to give my Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire to Betaworks in the Instapaper acquisition, but they had so many of both sitting around already that they declined. Tech companies with mobile apps can practically tile walls with outdated Android devices. They’re the new AOL CDs. 

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