Google Reader may have taken a tremendous step backwards in usability, but it’s not the first time it’s happened!
Change Numero Uno
When my friends moved from Bloglines to Google Reader around 2007 and I begrudgingly made the switch, I thought the interface was clumsier than the simple UI of Bloglines, but I quickly got used to it. Ironically in the current context of Google+ et al, one of the features I loved about this early Google Reader was its familiar interface with its rounded, friendly, colour coded sidebar.
As I blogged about obsessively at the time, in 2008 the service took a turn for the bland. The colours and rounded edges were replaced with bland, generic shades of blue on a white background. I couldn’t see any justification for what they did other than wanting to appear more "professional"; perhaps symptomatic of the transformation at Google from a fun loving to a more serious company.
In any event, I installed a bunch of Greasemonkey scripts to restore some colour and make the UI more interesting again, and forgot about it!
Fast forward again to 2011, and the largely stagnent Google Reader got another makeover, this time by imitating the UI of Google+, their fifth (or was it sixth?) attempt at a social network. Whereas before the UI was salvageable with some user styles, this was a complete rewrite, with large swaths of wasted screen real estate, low contrast lines and ugly monochromatic icons that look like they’ve been lifted from Mac OS X Lion or iTunes 10. Why Apple and Google, why!?
Alex also informed me their iframes (presumably to implement some of their AJAX) weren’t even being delivered over HTTPS, which explained why his Chrome browser and my Firefox browser with NoScript and RequestPolicy refused to render the pages at all!
Shared items (the primary reason I went to Google Reader from Bloglines in 2007) were also replaced with tiny Google +1 buttons.
For some reason I put this picture of Yuki reading a book on one of my old Google Reader posts. I guess I thought it was a metaphor for "reading"… pretty enlightened stuff. But I digress.
We saw this coming
Unfortunately, I think we all saw this coming. Google have tended to afford their various different units with the flexibility to create UIs specific to their products, but thesedays they seem to think generic consistency is more important than functionality. Google+’s design language is being implemented everywhere, regardless of its impact on the utility of their services.
As for the Google +1 buttons over sharing, this was also inevitable, though I think they could have made the transition more elegantly. Why not allow our previously shared items to be converted to +1s, rather than grandfathering all our previous shares and comments?
Again, not to sound like a curmudgeonly old hag who waves kids off his lawn, but this is just further proof that free cloud computing services should always be treated as transient. Feel privileged that you get to use them, because you don’t know how long they’ll be there in their current form or otherwise.
At least to their credit, Google is allowing us to export our stuff. When the uni holidays start, I might get cracking at writing my own replacement to host on Rubenerd.com, a simple RSS and Atom aggregator that accepts OPML lists, exports a feed of shared items and presents a page of them shouldn’t be too hard. Sorry Dave, not a river of news!