There are tools, and there are platforms. Tools tend to be simple things. They help you get some particular task done — they lend you their power when you need it — but they otherwise pretty much stay out of your life. They’re like little amplifiers of the self. Platforms are more complicated. They may help you do some of the same things that tools help you do, but, in granting that assistance, they demand that you become entangled in a bigger scheme, a scheme of someone else’s devising. Rarely do you know fully what the scheme consists of, what its ends are, or how it will develop in the future. A tool holds no secrets; a platform holds many. You use a tool; a platform uses you.
RSS is a good tool. It gives you a simple way to shape and filter the web’s content to suit your own needs. It lends you its power when you need it without requiring any broader entanglement. Its developers, to their credit, made its simplicity central. They were acting as tool-makers, which is how software programmers and web developers tended to act a decade ago. That was before the platform-builders arrived, with their schemes.
Google was once a tool-maker. Now, it’s a platform-builder. Like Facebook. Like Apple. Like Microsoft. Like Twitter. Like all the rest. And so Google is officially killing off its popular RSS tool Google Reader. The move was in the cards ever since the creation of the Google+ platform. Tools are threats to platforms because they give their owners ways to bypass platforms. If you have a good set of tools, you don’t need a stinking platform. If you’re happy with RSS, you’re a little less likely to sign up for Google+, or Twitter, or Facebook. At the very least, the tool gives you the choice. It grants you self-determination.
RSS, like other web tools and even other personal-computer tools, is doomed—not doomed, necessarily, to disappear, but doomed to be on the periphery, largely out of sight. “We’re living in a new kind of computing environment,” said Google engineer Urs Hölzle in announcing that Google Reader would be swept away in a “spring cleaning.” He’s right. The tool environment is gone. The platform environment is here. Consider yourself entangled.
Photo by Julia Manzerova.