How Not to Argue Against Google

The impending death of Google Reader predictably set off a wave of fury amongst infovores. Anger is, after all, an important part of the five stages of internet grief. I get that; I’m angry most of the time. Unfortunately, frequent byproducts of anger are unreasonable charges and illogical arguments.

Among these are: Matt Alexander calling what Google did with Reader in the RSS space “anti-competitive”, Marco Arment saying that Google engaged in “predatory pricing”, and of course all the usual people pointing to the fact that Reader was free to be the root of all evil.

The predatory pricing charge is strange. As the Wikipedia article Arment himself linked to explains, the predatory part of predatory pricing comes from the fact that a company uses low prices to gain a large market share… so that it can then raise the prices to an unreasonable level.

Clearly, that’s not what happened here. Yes, Google Reader did essentially own the RSS space. No, Google Reader never charged anyone a cent. The fact that Google is shutting down Reader makes it clear that predatory pricing is not even part of what Google wanted to do with Reader.

So what, you say. Arment may be a lesser Wikipedia economist than me, but Reader had a monopoly on the RSS market anyway. And everybody knows that monopoly = anti-competitive practices — even if “predatory pricing” turns out to be the wrong word.

Not so fast with that equal sign. Monopoly denotes a kind of outcome. Anti-competitiveness denotes a kind of practice. Not all monopolies result from anti-competitive practices. A natural monopoly is a kind of monopoly that results from an efficient market rather than any anti-competitive practices.

As far as I can see while scanning Wikipedia’s list of anti-competitive practices, Google Reader did nothing of that sort. Its pricing, as I said, was not predatory. Users were free to choose other services. There was no collusion. Users weren’t compelled to use Reader if they used other Google products.

Instead, Reader’s dominance of the RSS space looks to be to be a textbook example of a natural monopoly.

It’s so easy to forget now, but as Khoi Vinh reminded us, Google Reader was (and still is) a damn fine service.

Google Reader didn’t beat every other feed reader purely because it was free. Google Reader won because it was an extremely well-executed example of interaction design.

The technological superiority is even more apparent under the hood. Google Reader was (and still is) fast, powerful, and good at solving not-so-obvious problems like getting feeds from sites that don’t obviously have one. IT SYNCS. As many developers are discovering, Google Reader’s background plumbing is not easy to replicate now. It certainly was even harder to do then, when Google Reader came to its RSS dominance.

Finally — and this is the key — arguably it’s inefficient for the market to have many competing RSS plumbing services doing all the things that Google Reader does; it’s much more efficient for developers to build apps and secondary services on top of one. Indeed, that’s arguably what actually happened.

Be angry if you want. But let’s not distort the economic terms or revise history just to make irrational arguments that fit an agenda.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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2 thoughts on “How Not to Argue Against Google

  1. It seems like some people think Google is trying to kill the whole concept of RSS and drive its users toward Google+. If that’s what they’re doing, that seems predatory to me, if not an exact fit of the definition. That said, I have no idea why people think that or how that makes sense.

  2. I guess I just can’t believe Google is that dumb. The kind of person who’d use Reader is exactly the kind of person who can find replacements.

    In general, I find it difficult to attribute malice to Google with respect to what was done to Reader, since it seems that not much thought went into it in the first place. Mismanaged, yes. Predatory, no.

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