Fed up with Feed Readers

It’s probably unrealistic to expect to ever find the perfect RSS reader for my own feed consumption habits, but boy is it frustrating that I can’t. I’ve been looking for years, trying every solution I can get my hands on. But compared to the feed management tools that were available as long as five years ago, it feels as if there’s been only incremental progress.

This is at least partly due to the essentially non-industrial nature of RSS reading. Whether you’re a casual RSS consumer or an expert, the majority of feed consumption does not directly produce income or revenue for the consumer. Rather, it’s an activity that’s highly personal in nature, and so naturally subject to a greater variety of individual whims and preferences than, say, word processing. This is why we have RSS functionality in so many different forms: as dedicated desktop clients, embedded in email clients, grafted onto browsers, bundled up as widgets and remotely rendered as Web applications. Not inappropriately, there’s no consensus on how to use this stuff.


Reading in Place

For myself, I more or less consistently favor desktop software over Web software. So I long held up NetNewsWire as the best RSS aggregator on the market. It’s solidly built, intuitive and a true, dyed-in-the-wool citizen of the Mac operating system. I used it faithfully for years and never really found a compelling alternative, but gave it up late last year after realizing that its development lacked any discernible forward momentum.

As slick a product as NetNewsWire is, it’s long suffered from some major gaps in functionality: its ability to synchronize between computers is atrociously unreliable, it lacks a meaningful tagging system, and its smart lists functionality is conspicuously missing key parameters — you can’t create a smart list to show every post published within a certain date range, nor can you distinguish in a smart list between read and unread posts. I had come to regard a lot of these shortcomings as only gaps in a work-in-progress. But when I saw relatively superficial aspects of the interface — like icons and alternative pane displays — needlessly updated while these deficiencies remained, I could only draw the conclusion that NetNewsWire is not serious about becoming a better application.

Readers Who Used This Reader Also Liked These Readers

For a while, I tried to use the built-in RSS support in Apple Mail. It’s a fairly simplistic aggregator, but it does have the advantage of Mail’s powerful smart mailboxes for creating highly specialized custom views. Unfortunately, it offers no synchronization features, requiring me to manually copy my list of feeds between my various computers in order to maintain some consistency in my subscriptions. And even then I was continually re-reading updates at home that I’d already read at the office. That got old pretty quick.

I’ve since moved on to the altogether different Google Reader, Google’s ambitious, browser-based RSS aggregator. Of course, I would prefer a desktop option, but as a Web application with only one store of information that can be accessed from anywhere, it obviates the need for synchronization entirely. It’s hard to argue with that convenience when hopping from computer to computer, sometimes within minutes of one another. Winner.

A Cut Above

It helps too, that Google Reader is noticeably more advanced than NetNewsWire in some significant ways. As is typical of Google, their approach to the problem of managing RSS is demonstrably smarter than the competition. The top-line view offered on the application’s home page — a quick summary of new posts, recommendations and the user’s recent activity — isn’t quite a fully-fleshed concept, but it’s still evidence of a truly incisive understanding of the medium. More than just helping a user organize feeds, it helps users find and use content. It’s the user at the core of the system that Google’s designers have created here; the central idea is how people use and relate to data, not simply tools for arranging that data in simple hierarchies.

It’s not perfect though. For new users, the Google Reader interface is opaque and surprisingly counter-intuitive. In fact, it seems geared towards experts much more than casual users. It has an overabundance of modes and facets — starred items, sharing and public posting, a temporal concept of folder hierarchy, notes, a section literally called ‘stuff’ — that tested both my comprehension and patience when I imported my RSS subscriptions for the first time. Had I not been familiar with its reputation among trusted friends for being worth the learning curve, I almost certainly would have abandoned it in the first few days.

What’s more, at the end of the day, Google Reader is still a Web application and not a desktop one. Granted, it’s a very fast Web application, but for me it’s still uncomfortably constrained by the browser window, disconnected from the operating system and all the attendant goodies that would otherwise be available. Call me old-fashioned, but I really just want a desktop application — and I maintain that such a desire is still legitimate, no matter how popular cloud computing gets.

I’m happy enough to use Google Reader going forward, but this is what I mean about how little the RSS aggregator market has progressed in the past several years: Google Reader should not be the only advancement we can point to. There are dozens of variants on how RSS is consumed, and so there should be at least a dozen RSS programs as good as Google Reader, if not better. Some of them would live in the browser, it’s true, but others should live on the desktop, and still others should be hybrids (a desktop client that uses Google Reader as a service sounds about right). At this point, with RSS so important to knitting the Web together, we should have more choices than this.

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  1. I’m in the same camp as you, loving the desktop app qualities of NNW, but frustrated with it’s flaky sync and slow feature development.

    I’ve since switched to Google Reader and us it as a desktop app through Fluid. Add on a nice icon and a Greasemonkey script or two (Greasemonkey is built into Fluid), and you’ll never look back. It’s everything I wanted from NNW and a lot more.

  2. Amen.
    Completely agree, including your points about Google Reader (which I personally use, “hopping from computer to computer”).
    I’m not a big fan of its interface either, but really, you “can’t argue with the convenience.”
    With ‘a bit’ of patience, you can even use it on the iPhone… (I mean, if you REALLY have to.) ;-)

  3. Just echoing Jason’s remarks… Google Reader is a near-perfect fit for Fluid. I’m also a big fan of Jon Hicks’ excellent Helvetireader skin. That skin, combined with Apple’s awesome zooming accessibility feature make reading feeds a joy.

  4. Khoi, what problems are you having with syncing via NNW? I haven’t had any problems since setting it up. Occasionally you have to resync a feed or two, but overall it’s worked great for me.

    There are things about NNW that I think need to be improved, but overall it’s worked great for me. I can’t imagine switching to anything else, especially since I can sync it across all my machines and my iPhone.

    Another great feature of NNW is the ability to style your feeds. I think this feature along makes it stand above the rest.

  5. I’m coming from NewsFire, which I loved for it’s simplicity, but the developer of which neither here nor there. I just switched to Google Read the other day and am fairly happy with it. I also preferred a desktop app over web app, but I figured RSS is for reading websites, so it doesn’t matter (for me). Using Fluid now.

  6. Make sure you check out Byline if you haven’t already – a great feed reader for your iPhone that syncs with Google Reader. You can get it to sync the full content of your feeds before you jump on the subway, and then you don’t need net access to flip through it.

  7. I’m personally a fan of Google Reader. The convenience of being able to check my feeds beats out from anywhere beats out the lackluster quality of its interface. Actually, the interface can be significantly improved to mimic an almost desktop-like appearance:
    1) Use Fluid to create an independent browser instance.
    2) Fluid automatically creates a dock badge (a la Mail.app) to easily keep updated on the unread count.
    3) Install the gorgeous Helvetireader skin.
    4) Install the Reader Notifier app to provide Growl updates.

    I’m quite liking this setup, with the only blind spot being a poor iPhone interface. I’ll have to give Byline a try.

  8. I’m still using NetNewsWire, and have been for a while now (after trying dozens of free and/or open source alternative that always got too slow). The sync’ing has been a little flaky, but I’m usually just reading on my laptop so it’s not a huge problem, at this point.

    The main reason I’m wary of switching to Google is that I want to be able to read offline sometimes, even if that is pretty rare. Is there an app-equivalent to Byline that might let me pull a local copy of the latest news? That might be the thing that’d push me over the edge, “a desktop client that uses Google Reader as a service”…

    -p

  9. I also used Fluid to put Google Reader on my desktop, and while yes, it is a “near” perfect fit, it’s the closest thing to perfect I can find. I used Newsfire for a long time, too, but petty differences developed, and unfortunately we’re no longer on good terms.

    Now I use Fluid/GReader for prolonged rss reading of all my favorite feeds, the Gmail in-browser news crawler (with custom feeds) for at-a-glance frequently-updating feeds, and Yahoo Pipes to aggregate my feeds into manageable, stream-lined feeds. Using Fluid for GReader has the added bonus of popping up a new Fluid window when opening links, as opposed to immediately launching your default browser, which can be annoying if you just want to sneak a look at something and your browser takes a minute to load.

  10. I actually got into RSS because of Google’s Reader, since I was reading some stuff at work on a PC, some stuff at home on my Mac, and some stuff on my iPod touch, getting a single app that would sync all these instances failed (and not just the subscriptions, but also which items are read, starred stuff for later etc).

    I tried using NNW Mac, NNW iPod and FeedDemon Win client all connected via NewsGator, but it just wasn’t as convenient.

    I wish NNW would just sync with Google Reader.

    Also, I’ll definitely check out Fluid+Helvetireader, looks superb.

  11. I’ve been using Google Reader for quite some time now, mostly because of the convenience. And honestly, there’s a big part of me that likes just having a list of recently updated sites. I click the link; I go to the latest Subtraction post. While I understand some (maybe even most) feed reader users like to read the new content in their reader, I really like seeing the post in the context of the site. To me, that’s part of the experience — I prefer reading the post in the shell of the site it comes from. Haven’t spent much time pondering *why* that is, but it is what I like.

  12. re: David van Wert–

    That’s an interesting point to bring up, there is definitely something to be said for the context in which a reader shows you feeds, as well as the conventions used by webmasters to display their feeds. I find the best feeds are usually ones that mimic their original representation on their home site, ala notcot.org.

    Too many sites ruin their posts by omitting images, formatting, or even sections of text. For some users, feed readers are a way to easily skim their favorite sites, picking and choosing posts to delve into. For others, the main function of a reader is to eliminate frequent visits to certain sites–an entirely different use altogether.

    In this respect, the way feeds are displayed has a lot to do with altering the user’s experience with that content. If you get the same experience or information from a feed entry as you do from the original site post, that eliminates your visits to that site, at least for reading posts. Although Notcot.org has great feed posts (visually), their fatal flaw is that they link to Notcot’s individual entry page for that post, which is simply another link to the original site that’s being posted about. In short, if your posts are just a link to content elsewhere, then make your RSS posts link to the content itself, not to another link. Following that kind of link structure actually creates a step in the browsing process, instead of eliminating one.

    Now a reader that could allow you to format the content and representation of custom feeds using pre-existing site data… that’d really be something.

  13. As well as the non-industrial nature of feeders, I think you hit on another big problem holding RSS back:

    “For new users, the Google Reader interface is opaque and surprisingly counter-intuitive. In fact, it seems geared towards experts much more than casual users.”

    The “Really Simple” concept behind RSS is has been lost for the majority of users, muddled with technical jargon and user-unfriendly interfaces. Subscribing to and reading feeds should be something accessible and intuitive to all; as simple as switching on your TV or opening the paper.

    One company I know very well has a website with content screaming out for RSS-ification – it would make it easier and cheaper for the company to produce, and so much easier for the target audience to read and explore. It frustrates me that they still insist on sending out bulky news emails once a month. The problem is, they don’t think the audience will understand RSS, that the concept is too techie — so their website will forever look like it was designed ten years ago.

    Oh, and as with everyone else, I heartily recommend Helvetireader.

  14. An interesting & timely post for me as my wife & I have just been discussing the various ways to consume RSS and what is an “ideal”system. Personally I can’t let go of NNW as I do prefer it’s “desktop” interface to that of Google Reader, a product I REALLY wanted to love but just can’t seem to. For me the take away from this discussion is a real need to to address RSS consumption in a meaningful & flexible way so a variety of consuming habits can be accommodated. Thanks Khoi as always for the thoughtful an provoking post.

  15. I agree, I agree. On the Mac desktop, I love NNW, but I don’t like it on the iPod/iPhone – there I much prefer Byline, which has much better offline capabilities (OMG, what’s with not being able to access my clippings folder??!!!). I only wish Google Reader had a good Mac client (I don’t like the Air version at all) – maybe Eventbox will become that app?

  16. Thanks to those that suggested Fluid. It’s a nice solution that at least gets me out from under the weight of the browser chrome, but it’s still not quite everything that I feel should be in a desktop app. I’d also like to get a built-in browser (like NNW’s terrific built-in browser), drag ‘n’ drop, and something like smart folders. Still, it’s a start, and I’ll try it out for a few weeks.

    Regarding Helvetireader: I applaud this user style; it’s really beautiful. I just don’t find it very usable. It doesn’t really demarcate the various regions of the interface very well for my taste, and so I actually have a hard time looking at it and parsing out what’s what. I think this is one of the traps of translating Modernist design principles to digital interfaces too literally; there’s not enough sensitivity to usability and too much emphasis on aesthetic purity.

  17. I completely understand your struggle. The list of things I want my reader to do is always growing. I recently made the switch to Google Reader myself, though unlike you I do prefer a web-based reader, mainly because I do half of my reading on the iPhone, and don’t want to bother with syncing. (I actually read this whole post on my phone, and only came to my computer to comment)

    I almost want to see a reader behave more like Delicious (or at least interact cleanly with it): I want to be able to tag and archive interesting articles, but fishing through “read” posts is always a pain. I’d also like my feeds to automatically expire; if I don’t get to them in, say, 15 or 30 days, and my list of unread items is more than I’ll ever get to, it should clean up some of the old stuff for me.

  18. Without a doubt, you should download Feedly from feedly.com. It integrates seamlessly with your Google Reader account AND tumblr, twitter, friendfeed, delicious, and on and on.

    I’ve been using it for 2 months now and it is hands down the greatest RSS reader I have ever used.

    As far as wanting a reader that works well with delicious – feedly already has it built in. Reading a post you want to tag? Just press D and the tag window pops open (provided you have the delicious firefox plugin installed).

    Trust me, give it a try – you’ll love it!

  19. I got all excited at @Jim’s mention of Feedly, but that requires Firefox, and I’d rather not. But, okay, that’s just prejudice — I’ll at least give it a try… (Oh, Khoi, thanks for this discussion, as I’ve been pinging back and forth between NNW and GR for years, and I might pick up some good new options here!)

  20. I think you are in the great minority here, honestly. And that’s the problem. The general public is largely moving toward web-based applications. It’s easier, more reliable, and more accessible. When that is the case, why would developers spend time on a desktop application when the large majority of users are moving toward the web? In fact, I would venture to say that an even larger majority of developers prefer web-based apps, thus reducing the interest of developers.

    Desktop applications are dwindling in their usefulness. As computers become ever-present users don’t want to be tied to installing applications and syncing between many machines. Seeing that RSS is a web-based system that was practically built to be read in a web-based aggregator, it is just going to be more prone to web-based solutions.

  21. You may want to try Rososo. Billed as the peaceful newsreader. It’s basically a way to track bookmarks with RSS. A very basic RSS reader that takes much of the traditional functionality away and concentrates on just letting you know when the sites you like are updated.

  22. @Jim – Thanks for the tip! I’ll definitely check it out.

    Speaking of RSS: Khoi, you need an RSS feed of comments on a single post ;) I have a tag in GR for just such a thing. (or am I just not seeing the link somewhere?)

  23. Just FYI, fluid apps can be modified in the preferences pane to navigate to any url using safari, firefox, ie, and other browser types (meaning you can navigate away from feed posts, gmail, etc. and mimic lots of browsers while surfing), and will open links in new windows or in new tabs. It’s basically a fully functional browser, just no nav bar at the top, but the browsa plugin allows for fully functional browsing in either side-pane or drawer modes, complete with nav bar and forward/back functionality.

    Who knew rss would bring all these comments out of Khoi’s woodwork?

  24. I use Google Reader, and I really like it except for 1 thing…
    I’d really like to see a better (integrated) treatment of comments

    The conversations that spring up in the comments section often provide at least as much information/entertainment as the original post.

    I would love to be able to have a post’s comments feed automatically associated with it… maybe in a collapsible side panel or something

  25. Not seeing comments is a limitation of RSS that I’m not sure how to handle. But, before Google Reader can overcome that question, RSS/Atom need to figure it out. However, I would love to being reading in item in Reader and click “follow comments” and automatically get a subscription to the comments for that item. However, the RSS/Atom feed does not (generally at least) have any information about the comments.

    It’s possible this is a little-used part of one or both of the standards, but I haven’t seen it taken advantage of before.

  26. @David Janke: You Sir have read my mind. Now that’s what I’d call a killer feature for an RSS reader. Although I think it would require some serious modification of the RSS spec. I guess we should chalk it up for RSS 3.0.

  27. If it was easy I’d be working on my own reader right now (or more likely, it would already be implemented) :)

    As long as the feeds follow a predictable pattern, the reader could figure out the comments feed’s URI. For example, WordPress comes with pre-built feed templates. details here.

    Without a standard, it’s all just dirty work-arounds, though.

    If you support a couple of the big players (Blogger, WordPress, etc) and cover enough market share to become “widely adopted,” the smaller players would most likely adopt one of the formats.
    (setting in the reader… This feed uses [Blogger | WordPress | Feedburner] style comments)

    Google/Feedburner could definitely push a defacto standard… but I would worry about it devolving into IE6-type quirks if a standard did emerge (e.g., something in RSS 3.0) that was not exactly the same as the defacto

  28. Yes, Feedly is only a Firefox plugin but I believe eventually they will find a way to support the others.

    As far as reading comments within the feed, Feedly does this! It’s not on every blog (and unfortunately not this one for some reason) – but very often at the bottom of a post you’ll see a list of comments taken right from the page itself.

    I promise I don’t work for them, I just figure the more people hear about it and use it, the better it will get.

    Here’s an example I just put up of what it looks like.

  29. I keep going back to Bloglines, the same way I find myself drawn to the command line. I don’t like Bloglines’ beta thing; it tries to be too smart. The basic application is precisely what I want it to be, expects me to know what I want, and then gets out of the way.

    I tried Google Reader, with and without the Helvetireader skin, and (even having just tried it while writing that first paragraph, for verification) I can’t stand it. As I scroll through the items in a particular feed, it’s AJAX retrieval pushes the posts around the sequence. It’s easy to get lost, or to inadvertently “read” something I didn’t intend to read. I admire their effort, but Google’s Reader annoys by trying too hard.

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