The end of EZReader

I've shut down EZReader permanently. It was a fun project and I'll miss working on it, but it's just not financially viable anymore. If you're interested to know what happened, read on. I'd love to say that it's a grand tragic tale of hubris and excess, but it's really just a story about poor timing.

Why EZReader existed

They announced that Reader was going away, and, like many people, my first question was whether I could just pay Google $10 a month to keep it around. It was clear that I wasn't the only person asking that question.

Three months later, I still didn't like any of the alternatives to Reader. And there still weren't many options for paying for it. My wife was asking what she should use as a replacement, and I didn't have any answer that wasn't going to make her sad. Nothing looked or worked enough like Reader, at least nothing that didn't involve running my own server. So I decided I would just create my own aggregator that had all the things she and I liked about Google Reader.

After getting a proof of concept up and running, I realized that with a little extra work I could make this available to everyone. I decided to make it a paid service (just a couple of dollars a month); that way, I could afford to keep it running and have enough income to keep developing features for it.

Making it able to scale enough to handle many users (as opposed to just myself and my wife) meant that the monthly cost to run it would be a little higher (the whole thing runs in the cloud on some Azure VMs). But I figured I could break even at just a couple hundred users, which didn't seem completely out of reach.

Alas, I had jumped in too late. EZReader was ultimately doomed by arriving far too late to the party. Once I'd made the decision to go forward with EZReader, I still had months worth of commitments to client work that had to be fulfilled. By the time all that was out of the way, I was pushing hard through June to get EZReader out the door before the Google Reader shutdown. But others were already far, far ahead of me, and ultimately I just couldn't catch up.

Competitors in the paid market

When I first decided to charge for EZReader, having a feed aggregator be a service that you paid for seemed like a pretty wild idea. Other than Feedbin, it didn't seem like anyone else was going that direction. And the alternative aggegators who had the most market share (and the best puff pieces in Wired) all seemed like they were on the "get users and we'll figure out how to pay for it later" track.

So being a paid service was still a distinguishing attribute, and one that I figured would become more and more important as the wild concept of actually paying for things on the Internet gained popularity. And that might be enough of a distinguishing factor that I would only be competing with Feedbin for a while; I had some time to carve out a chunk of the paid market based on features I had that Feedbin didn't (though I'd be playing catch-up for a while).

Feedly creating a paid option, then making it available to everyone, pretty much killed that notion. Now anyone for whom "paid" was the primary choice driver had two options that had more features than me. I would be playing catch-up to both products. And Feedly, especially, was way, way ahead.

The real killer was mobile

In the end, the nail in the coffin was really the mobile problem. Basically, EZReader had no mobile support of any kind. The web application worked well enough on the iPad, but it was unusable on any smaller mobile devices. Which would have been easy enough (though time-consuming) to address, but web applications aren't what you want on a mobile platform - you really need something native. EZReader had a REST API from the start; the web application was basically just a JavaScript app that used the API to talk to the server. Which meant that there were two options for making a good mobile experience available: adapting an existing reader application, or rolling my own.

Unfortunately, rolling my own was going to be time-consuming. I have mobile development experience on Android and Windows Phone, but I've only recently begun to work with iOS. WP7 doesn't have the market share to help grow a user base; at best it can give you a slight edge right now. And while Android has a high adoption rate, there's some doubt about the viability of paid options on that platform. And honestly, even on the platforms with which I had experience it was simply going to take too long to get the apps out while I was working full-time to get feature parity with competitors.

Which left the "get someone else to adapt their app to your API" option. Frankly, this is the one I'd been betting on since the beginning. I had no desire to write my own mobile reader app anyway; I already loved Mr. Reader for the iPad and Wonder Reader for my phone. So I was really banking on growing to a large enough user base that it would make sense for an existing reader to support my API, just as had happened with aggregators like Feedly.

Sadly, the user numbers never materialized, and I was left with a front page that couldn't boast any mobile support. These days, that's just too big a feature gap. I'm sure there are lots of ways this could have been avoided or dealt with, but the investment of time, money, and general slogging just didn't seem worth it.

May it rise again

If, for some reason, Feedly and Feedbin and the other paid aggregators end up failing and going away, I will happily resurrect EZReader. The one thing I can say about the application and architecture that I built is that it could run cheaply; my monthly subscription price was lower than any of the competitors, and it would have at least broken even at a few hundred users. And i firmly believe in the concept of paying for software services; advertising as a way to pay for software and services is a fundamentally broken idea and paid alternatives need to exist. So if the competitive space clears, EZReader will be there to pick up the slack. And it's a project I would happily work on again.

After the shutdown

Ultimately I ended up on Feedly, simply because they supported Mr. Reader (my favorite on the iPad) and NextGen Reader for Windows Phone 7. I actually find Feedly's web interface nearly unusable, and it breaks my heart every time I run into a bug I had already fixed in EZReader or a design decision that I feel I'd made better. But the back-end seems to be stable and in the end, mobile support is the real decider. I am a paying customer; I'm glad they have that option so that (hopefully) I don't have to switch again just because the service disappears.

From a web interface perspective, I prefer Feedbin, but they just didn't have a Windows Phone option, and that's where I do a lot of my reading. Sadly, neither service is supported by the excellent Wonder Reader, which as far as I'm concerned is the ideal phone-based reader. It appears to have died when Google Reader went away. I can only hope that NextGen reader eventually starts to move toward the Wonder Reader interface.

My wife ended up getting a new job where she keeps up with all of her professional blogs and news using the RSS features in Outlook, of all things. And she doesn't have a lot of time for reading non-professional things, so she's doing fine without an RSS aggregator for the moment. I'll probably set her up on Feedly (she, too, has a Windows Phone) when the time comes.

So it's done. If nothing else, I learned a lot writing EZReader. I'm proud of the architecture I created, the problems I solved, and UI I created. A lot of the code that made EZReader work will live on in other projects. And I can now say that I've got my first startup failure behind me. I did it without ending up deep in a financial hole or in a courtroom, so I'm in better shape than a lot of other people who've tanked a business.

On to the next opportunity.