There was a sign in the Google Reader team’s workspace at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. “Days Since Cancellation,” it read, with a number below: zero. It was always zero.
This was in 2006 or so, back when Google Reader was still growing. Back when it still existed at all. Google’s feed-reading tool offered a powerful way to curate and read the internet and was beloved by its users. Reader launched in 2005, right as the blogging era went mainstream; it made a suddenly huge and sprawling web feel small and accessible and helped a generation of news obsessives and super-commenters feel like they weren’t missing anything. It wasn’t Google’s most popular app, not by a long shot, but it was one of its most beloved.
Within the company, though, Reader’s future always felt precarious. “It felt so incongruent,” says Dolapo Falola, a former engineer on the Reader team. “Literally, it felt like the entire time I was on the project, various people were trying to kill it.”
Of course, Google did kill it. (Google didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.) Reader’s impending shutdown was announced in March of 2013, and the app went officially offline on July 1st of that year. “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined,” Google SVP Urs Hölzle wrote in a blog post announcing the shutdown.
Google tried its best to bury the announcement: it made it the fifth bullet in a series of otherwise mundane updates and published the blog post on the same day Pope Francis was elected to head the Catholic Church. Internally, says Mihai Parparita, who was one of Reader’s last engineers and caretakers, “they were like, ‘Okay, the Pope will be the big story of the day. It’ll be fine.’ But as it turns out, the people who care about Reader don’t really care about the Pope.” That loyal following Hölzle spoke of was irate over losing their favorite web consumption tool.
Google’s bad reputation for killing and abandoning products started with Reader and has only gotten worse over time. But the real tragedy of Reader was that it had all the signs of being something big, and Google just couldn’t see it. Desperate to play catch-up to Facebook and Twitter, the company shut down one of its most prescient projects; you can see in Reader shades of everything from Twitter to the newsletter boom to the rising social web. To executives, Google Reader may have seemed like a humble feed aggregator built on boring technology. But for users, it was a way of organizing the internet, for making sense of the web, for collecting all the things you care about no matter its location or type, and helping you make the most of it.
A decade later, the people who worked on Reader still look back fondly on the project. It was a small group that built the app not because it was a flashy product or a savvy career move — it was decidedly neither — but because they loved trying to find better ways to curate and share the web. They fought through corporate politics and endless red tape just to make the thing they wanted to use. They found a way to make the web better, and all they wanted to do was keep it alive.
“This is going to be the driest story ever,” says Chris Wetherell, when I ask him to describe the beginning of Google Reader. Wetherell wasn’t the first person at Google to ever dream of a better way to read the internet, but he’s the one everyone credits with starting what became Reader. “Okay, here goes: a raging battle between feed formats,” he says when I push. “Does that sound interesting?”
Here’s the short version: One of the most important ways that information moves around the internet is via feeds, which automatically grab a webpage’s most important content and make it available. Feeds are what make podcasts work across apps, and how content shows up in everything from Flipboard to Facebook. In the early aughts, there were basically two ways to build a feed. One was RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication and has been around approximately forever. The other was called Atom, a newer standard that aimed to fix a lot of the things that were outdated and broken with RSS.
In late 2004, Jason Shellen, a product manager working on Atom projects at Google, called up Wetherell, a former colleague on the Blogger team, and asked him if he could hack together some kind of Atom-based app. “Is there any way you could write just a little thing that would parse Atom, just to show how it works?” Shellen asked. All he really needed was a tech demo, something he could show potential partners to explain how Atom worked.
And then the strangest thing happened: as soon as he’d finished the Fusion app, Wetherell started using it to actually read stuff from the sites whose feeds he’d grabbed. He turned to his partner that night and said: “I think I built a thing.” Wetherell sent the prototype to Shellen, who also immediately saw its potential.
Wetherell and Shellen started imagining all the different kinds of feeds this tool could store. He thought it might bring in photo streams from Flickr, videos from YouTube and Google Videos, even podcasts from around the web. Shellen, who had come to Google as part of its Blogger acquisition, saw the possibility for a social network, a single place to follow all your friends’ blogs. “Of course, it was just a hacky list of feeds,” Wetherell says, but there was something about the speed with which you could flip through articles and headlines, the information density, the simplicity of the reading experience, that just worked.
Ultimately, Wetherell ended up spending some of his 20 percent time — Google’s famous policy of letting employees work on just about whatever they wanted, which ironically died about the same time Reader did — building Fusion into a more complete feed-reading product. It handled RSS, Atom, and more. After a while, he wound up showing it to the folks building iGoogle, the company’s recently launched web-homepage product. (iGoogle has since been killed, of course.)
In his presentation, Wetherell shared a much bigger, grander ambition for Fusion than an article-reading service. He and Shellen had been talking about the fact that a feed could be, well, anything. Wetherell kept using the word “polymorphic,” a common term in programming circles that refers to a single thing having many forms.
“I drew a big circle on the whiteboard,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘This is information.’ And then I drew spokes off of it, saying, ‘These are videos. This is news. This is this and that.’” He told the iGoogle team that the future of information might be to turn everything into a feed and build a way to aggregate those feeds.
Fusion was meant to be a social network based on content, on curation, on discussion
The pitch sounded good, and they got permission to keep working on it. Fusion wasn’t exactly made an official project or staffed like one, but it was at least allowed to continue to exist. Wetherell and Shellen recruited other people working on similar projects in their 20 percent time, and Shellen wrote an official product spec document outlining Fusion’s ambitions. The vision, he wrote, was to “become the world’s best collaborative and intelligent web content delivery service.” It promised to “build a robust web service and best-of-breed user interface for viewing subscriptions” and to produce an API that would let other apps tap into the same underlying data.
In other words, Fusion was meant to be a social network. One based on content, on curation, on discussion. In retrospect, what Shellen and Wetherell proposed sounds more like Twitter or Instagram than an RSS reader. “We were trying to avoid saying ‘feed reader,’” Shellen says, “or reading at all. Because I think we built a social product.”
That was the idea, anyway.
In October of 2005, Shellen announced Fusion to the world at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. Only he wasn’t allowed to call it Fusion. The team had been forced to change the name at the last minute, after Marissa Mayer — at that point, the Google executive in charge of all of the company’s consumer web services — said she wanted the name for another product and demanded the team pick another one. (That product never launched, and nobody I spoke to could even remember what it was. Mayer also didn’t respond to a request for comment.)