Om Malik has been one of the most outspoken of the A-list bloggers in opposition to Google’s decision to shut down Google Reader, and after Google announced Keep he wrote that in his opinion Google can Keep it to their self. Marco Arment, who is the developer of Instapaper, wrote in disagreement to Malik, saying “In this business, you can’t count on anything having longevity.” Arment is expressing the sentiment of many who believe that Google is perfectly in their right to shutdown Reader, which they provide for free.
Many others have written in the past several days about the dangers of using free web apps like Reader. While 100,000 or so users of Reader have expressed their unhappiness, imagine the howls if Google announced it was shutting down Gmail. Of course, Google would not shut down Gmail because it makes them money by generating ads from scans of user’s email. Following this line of reasoning, one should only use Google apps for which there is an obvious way for Google to make money from one’s use of that app, which makes me wonder how they will monetize Keep?
At first read Arment’s point of view is perfectly reasonable. You can only really trust that which you own, never mind the fact that one never really, truly, owns any software. Truth is that most of the apps one use on the Internet do not cost money, and while some have premium models for which users can pay, most provide no way for one to pay money to use the app.
So, while “buyer beware” definitely applies to the world of the free Internet apps, I find myself asking, what are the responsibilities of the companies who provide these apps? Should Google be off the hook for shutting down popular apps? While it is within Google’s right to shut down apps, there is a price to pay for the practice. Malik is one of many who are wary enough by the Reader shutdown to not be interested in Keep. If Keep doesn’t succeed it is not likely to cause Google much harm, but what if those same users chose to start using Bing more for search?
What Google and other providers of free apps need to remember is that we are not just users, we are customers. No company, not even Google, is immune to the risk of pissing off their customers. Unhappy customers voice their displeasure to anyone and everyone, and motivated unhappy customers start searching for alternative products. The really inventive unhappy customers might actually create alternative products.
As customers, we also should not be so quick to let Google off the hook. When a company releases a product and makes it available long enough for customers to become invested in using that product, it has a responsibility to their customers. While Google didn’t make money off Reader, it is not my fault as a customer that Google didn’t figure out a way to make money off this product.
In my opinion no company should release an app without some plan for how they are going to make money from that app. Developers of most free apps do have a plan, either to eventually offer a for-pay version with more features, or to attract enough users and popularity so that they can sell the app to another company. The mistake Google made with Reader is not finding a way to make money from it. Google could have figured out how to serve ads from one’s subscriptions, or they could have even made it only available with Google apps for which people pay to use.
While its good to admonish users to think twice about using free apps, and not be surprised if free apps disappear, let’s also admonish developers to think of the people who use their product as customers who deserve to be able to rely on the product that you are producing.