is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
RSS readers used to be amazing, wondrous portals into a novel, rich trove of original content. When that was the case, when they were still new and our expectations for them were relatively low, the leading Mac OS X application for aggregating them was NetNewsWire and I used it loyally.
But as RSS evolved and the sheer volume of feeds I collected became more and more of a management challenge, I began to sour on NetNewsWire. It may have started strong, but its development momentum lazily petered out, its gaps in functionality growing more egregious every six months or so. Today I regard it as a not particularly good application at all, and it sits on my virtual junk heap of software that just couldn’t — or wouldn’t — evolve along with its users’ needs. Especially with recent revisions, wherein its developer has apparently focused on cosmetic changes to the program at the expense of true improvements, I regard it as a squandered, mishandled opportunity.
Perhaps my biggest complaint of all was with NetNewsWire’s inveterate inability to get synchronization right. Granted, synchronization is a black art that nearly no one gets right, and NetNewsWire was dependent on the notoriously unreliable synchronization framework provided by Apple’s stridently half-hearted .Mac (now MobileMe) service. So it’s unfair to blame its developer for NetNewsWire’s thoroughly incompetent synching chops. (I’ll even excuse the alternative synching mechanism offered by the program’s current owners, Newsgator; in my experience, it was fundamentally no better or worse than .Mac.)
For users like myself, who needed to access the same aggregation of RSS feeds from multiple computers, synchronization is of paramount importance. It’s so critical, I’d almost rather use an RSS reader that flatly states that it will not sync than try to wrestle with one that promises synching but implements it so poorly as to be buffoonish in its execution. To me, NetNewsWire fell into the latter category.
Google Wins Again
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that, for my purposes, NetNewsWire was essentially unusable, that its roadmap held nothing promising for me, and that its developer was less than serious about turning it into a modern application. With some trepidation, I switched to Google Reader and, after climbing a nontrivial but not unreasonable learning curve, never looked back. In fact, in all the ways that I had learned to resent NetNewsWire, I came to become a huge fan of Google Reader; it satisfies all of my principal usage goals and, what’s more, it continually surprises me with new, interesting and useful innovations. There’s no mistaking the fact that Google supports this product with a passionate, industrious product team of developers who responds to its users’s needs and feedback. Not without missteps, mind you, but I’ll take that kind of flawed but well-intentioned responsiveness any day over the inaction I perceived from the NetNewsWire camp.
That’s why when I saw the quite surprising news that a new beta version of NetNewsWire now ditches its old synching mechanisms in favor of Google Reader, my interest was piqued. Rather than relying on MobileMe or Newsgator, NetNewsWire would now tap into my Google Reader account and synchronize with that application’s data store.
It sounded like great news. I quickly rushed to the beta page and downloaded and installed it. No sooner had I launched this new version and entered my Google Reader information than NetNewsWire, in synching with my Google Reader account, began to effectively destroy the careful organization of all of my subscriptions that I’ve worked so hard over many months to perfect. It took only a few minutes before my entire corpus of RSS feeds was disassembled and rendered almost useless.
This is a horrible and incompetent way for software to behave, and it leaves me thinking that this version of NetNewsWire easily ranks among the most carelessly destructive I’ve ever encountered. If asked, I can only recommend to others to be heavily wary of this feature if they value their Google Reader data at all. Better yet, I’d say skip it altogether.
Beta Than Nothing, or Not
Of course, it’s almost obvious to say that this is an object lesson in beta software. We’ve all become so accustomed to pre-release versions of software being generally stable, usable, reliable, even impressive, that we forget that there’s nothing preventing irresponsible releases bearing the ‘beta’ tag.
And therein lies the core of why this release strikes me as so egregiously bad: the NetNewsWire beta site warns users to back up their NetNewsWire preferences and data beforehand, but nothing in the total user experience of the product gives any indication that it will potentially rewrite the data and preferences in Google Reader as well. No warning message is provided to the user to back up their Google Reader account all all.
By my count there are three opportunities where such warnings should have appeared, none of which were acted upon. First, on the Web page where the beta version can be downloaded. Second in the dialog prompt that first asks for the user’s Google account information. And finally in the program’s preferences, where that account information is stored in perpetuity. All that was really necessary was a message to encourage users to conscientiously back up their Google Reader data before synching NetNewsWire with it, and a hell of a lot of heartburn could have been avoided.
But there’s no search warning. Nothing. No mention of Google Reader and how it might be affected whatsover. Instead, the total experience that NetNewsWire presents makes no allowance for the fact that a user might have data in their Google Reader account that they value, and it assumes that NetNewsWire is the only valuable source of data for the user at all. That’s not just irresponsible, it’s dangerous and arrogant.
It’s possible that synching is the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise decent update to NetNewsWire, but I truly doubt it. My initial enthusiasm at the very intriguing premise of an aging, creaky desktop RSS application acknowledging that Google’s cloud-based alternative can be the way of the future has been thoroughly snuffed out. Now, after having lost a significant amount of data almost instantly, I know that I’ll never find out if anything decent is on offer in this beta because I will almost certainly never use a piece of software called NetNewsWire again.+