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Google starts testing a follow button in Chrome for websites that support RSS

Google Chrome might soon be introducing a new feature to its users, which will allow them to keep up to date with their favourite websites. The most used browser around the world has been seen testing the feature as of now and might soon roll it out in a stable version.

Google Chrome was recently spotted testing a Follow feature for websites. The option appears in Chrome’s overview menu and helps its users follow a particular website for updates right on the web browser.

Users can simply click on the Follow button if they like a website. If done, they will be able to see the latest content update by the website in a new “Following” section on the New Tab page of Chrome.

In a recent blog post, Google Chrome Product Manager Janice Wong mentioned that the team’s goal for this feature is to allow people to “follow the websites they care about, from the large publishers to the small neighbourhood blogs.” This can be done by simply tapping a Follow button in Chrome.

The feature will make use of Really Simple Syndication or RSS to gather and display content from websites. Google thus recommends publishers to keep their RSS feed up to date to let Chrome provide the latest content from their websites through this new feature.

The feature, however, might be far from a stable version rollout for now. It has been spotted as a new experiment by Google on Chrome Canary, a version of Chrome mostly used by developers to test their websites and tools.

So as the standard procedure goes, the Follow button is first likely to undergo testing on Chrome Canary. Following this, it will make its way to Chrome Beta, where it will be tested for further improvements and bugs.

Once the performance is straightened out, only then will the feature see the light of the day on standard Chrome for all users. For now, it is being rolled out in a limited experiment to a small set of US users on Chrome Canary.

The outrage and sadness of Google Reader’s demise

White smoke over the Vatican doesn’t stand a chance as a trending topic next to the black cloud over one of Google’s most beloved products. Google Reader has landed on the company’s sunset list, and will wink out of existence on July 1. Problem is, Reader is not as widely beloved as its most fervid users assume. And speaking of trending topics, the extinction of Reader signifies the mainstream rejection of RSS as a hands-on tool for organizing a living library of real-time information flow. It has been eclipsed by social content discovery. As Brian Alvey, chief scientist of Ceros and creator of Blogsmith (Engadget’s publishing platform) noted, “Dear RSS: @Twitter won.”

More broadly speaking, Reader’s ultimate fail is the latest major rebalancing of the internet’s legacy symmetry of “push” and “pull.”

RSS is hardcore and nerdy, but was started by one of the potent early popularizers of the internet: Netscape. At that time (1999), the acronym stood for Rich Site Summary, but has come to be known as Real Simple Syndication — dubbed by Dave Winer who took over RSS development when Netscape lost interest. (Netscape was acquired by AOL, Engadget’s parent company, in March 1999.)

RSS has always been a useful time-saver for voracious internet binge consumers. Rather than circling among dozens of websites and suffering through tiresome page loads at each URL, RSS adherents can skim headlines at the hub of a giant content wheel, and in many cases (depending on how the feeds were configured) read entire articles without leaving the RSS service.

The whole arrangement, particularly that last part, was terrifying to publishers, who saw an ad-revenue future burned away in a stark landscape of text-only syndication. At the same time, apprehensive publishers were faced with the issue of relevance, just as they later would face the relevance question when contemplating social distribution — and, indeed, as newspapers had already faced with the apparent necessity of publishing on the internet at all when it became popular. In other words, most publishers knew they had to put that damn RSS button on their pages, even though they didn’t want anyone to use it.

Although RSS-driven traffic to websites is notoriously difficult to track, there is no question in my mind that RSS is good for publishers.

Publishers might be rejoicing at the symbolic defeat of RSS feeds. In fact, they should mourn as much as Reader’s users are grieving. There are dozens of content brands that, without my feed folders, I would never visit.

Although RSS-driven traffic to websites is notoriously difficult to track, there is no question in my mind that RSS is good for publishers. It’s not just a matter of putting content where the users live. RSS helps build brand loyalty and repeat visits (a major brass ring for audience development specialists) by keeping the brand visible in an environment over which the user has complete control. Publishers feel they have to be in Facebook, too, but Facebook’s distribution algorithm prevents them from reaching most of their followers most of the time. That diminished return is solved in Google Reader and other RSS services.

Google Reader is the ultimate personalized and customizable walled garden of content, and that is why I, and other devoted users, are inflamed by Google’s announcement. Removing Google Reader rips a hole in the center of an active user’s online life. I spend my share of time on Facebook and Twitter, and receive important content tips every day on those platforms. But Google Reader is where I start my day, even before email. I don’t know how many times I check my Industry and Tech folders each day — 40? It’s like wondering how many times I take a deep breath, or look at a clock.

But I believe it when Google states that usage has slowed. I think the company could probably keep Reader going with minimal resources, but I do understand the need to concentrate its bets on the products that point to the future. That doesn’t help me align the death of Reader with Google’s mission statement: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” For the smallish population of pure RSS lovers, who don’t care about the social aspects of news sharing, and certainly have no use for recommendation engines and viral barometers, Reader has been the prime info-organizing companion of the past eight years.

So there is anger, and a certain depression. The internet’s defining characteristic, the quality by which the active web historically opposes passive TV, is that you pull from it. TV pushes out to the couch. The internet stares at you implacably until you start pulling. The push / pull divide was austerely laid out in the mid-’90s, when bandwidth was narrow, text was the governing medium and streaming media was impossible in homes. More recently, (that is to say, in the past 12 years or so), the web has gotten pushy — delightfully so, I hasten to add. I’m no Luddite. When I take a tablet upstairs to continue watching a Netflix show I started on the downstairs TV, I think I’m living in the coolest science-fiction book ever written.

But when the push / pull balance gets so bizarrely disrupted that a key service for pulling content is not used enough to justify continued life support, I become morose. And when the company yanking the plug is valued at nearly $300 billion, and is supposedly committed to organizing the world’s information, depression and outrage battle for control of my mood.

I signed a few petitions, a quick burst of activism that’s as easy as it is inconsequential. Replacement services will be found. On the night of Google’s announcement, The Old Reader and Feedly were staggering under what I assume were massive import requests. Everyone will find new homes for their feeds. But the outrage at Google, and the damage to its mission reputation, might last a while.

Everything Google announced at I/O 2021

Google’s Sundar Pichai promised I/O 2021 would be full of new announcements and the company delivered. Across two hours, Google talked about upcoming features for most of its consumer-facing products, including Photos, Maps and Search. We also got a look at the next versions of Android and Wear OS, as well as Google’s ongoing work in AI. Add to that some surprises and it was a jam-packed event.

Google, as usual, kicked off I/O by talking up its latest advancements in artificial intelligence. It first detailed LaMDA, a new model the company claimed represents a breakthrough in conversational AI. In one of the more unusual demos of the day, Google showed off LaMDA pretending to be Pluto and then a paper airplane in conversations between it and the company’s employees. While it wasn’t always eloquent or concise, LaMDA was able to answer complicated questions. LaMDA could one day have significant implications for products like Search and Assistant. The company also showed off an AI-assisted dermatology tool that can provide you information about common skin conditions.

Privacy

Google devoted an entire section of its keynote to new privacy features coming to its various products. In Photos, for example, the company is adding a dedicated folder for images and video you want to keep private. Content you add to your Locked Folder won’t show up when you scroll through your Photos timeline and access requires inputting a passcode. In your account, meanwhile, there’s a new option to delete the last 15 minutes of your search history.

Apps

If there’s a Google app you use frequently, there’s a good chance the company detailed some substantial updates for it. Some of the highlights include new controls over the Memories feature in Photos, a tool for changing your compromised passwords in Chrome’s built-in password manager and deeper integrations between all of Google’s productivity apps. However, some of the most substantial enhancements are coming to Maps where Google plans to improve Live View, navigation and more detailed street maps.

Android 12

With Android 12, Google’s mobile operating system is getting its biggest facelift in years. Building on the company’s new Material You design language, the OS will adapt almost every element of the interface, including the notification shade and Quick Settings menu, to the dominant and complementary colors of your wallpaper. Android 12 will also introduce new privacy-related features, including a dashboard where you can see a timeline of all the data the apps on your phone have accessed recently. Other notable additions include remote integration with Android TV OS, a digital car key feature and a more racially inclusive camera. Speaking of cars, the company is also making it easier for developers to build Android Auto and Android Automotive apps. You can download Android 12 public beta today on select devices from 11 different manufacturers, including Google, OnePlus and ASUS.

WearOS

After years of neglect, Wear OS will finally get some love from Google. And it’s all thanks to Samsung. The two companies are working together on the latest version of Wear OS. While we don’t have all the details on the new release, Google promised a redesigned user interface that manufacturers will have more freedom when it comes to customization. The company also said the next version of Wear OS will feature improved health and fitness tracking and better battery performance.

Project Starline

It wouldn’t be I/O without Google showing off something almost fantastical. In 2021, Project Starline fit that bill. Resembling something akin to a photo booth, Starline features a special screen that displays a life-sized, 3D image of a person. The effect, according to Google, is such that it feels like that individual is sitting right in front of you, creating a more natural and immersive video chat experience. For now, Starline is something Google is testing at its offices, though it plans to let other companies trial the technology later this year.

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