Facts on ’Fiction

PulpFictionWhile everyone was getting all riled up over the pricing terms for Movable Type 3.0 late last week, I was eagerly keeping an eye on Freshly Squeezed Software’s Web site for the release of their entry into the Macintosh news aggregator market, the unfortunately titled PulpFiction.

After a fair amount of hype — or routine buildup, depending on how you look at it — the small software outfit made PulpFiction available for download on Saturday afternoon. I was out most of the day, but as soon as I got home, I dutifully installed a copy on my PowerBook.

How to Make News

PulpFiction promises a newer, more intuitive method of managing Really Simple Syndication and Atom feeds, at least more intuitive than the current reigning champion, NetNewsWire, or my preferred client, NewsMac. For a more complete overview of how it does this, read this post at Geek Patrol, but if you want a quick summary: Pulp Ficition can separate the individual news stories in an RSS or Atom feed from the feed itself, allowing them to mingle with other stories from other feeds, and to be sorted and filtered just as if they were email messages. In fact, PulpFiction is modeled closely on Apple’s Mail program.

PulpFicition User Interface

The Pulp Effect

This is one step closer to the original intent of syndication formats because it does, in effect, allow users to control the content much like real-world syndication. To use a newspaper metaphor, what NetNewsWire and NewsMac allow you to do is assemble a daily newspaper with one page dedicated to stories from Reuters, another for the Associated Press, another for Business Wire etc.

PulpFiction, on the other hand, allows you to assemble a daily newspaper that much more closely resembles your interests: you can have a front page, a business section, a sports section etc., and syndicated content is dispersed amongst those section as appropriate. You do this by creating folders that represents these areas of interest, and you use filters (analagous to mail rules in most modern email clients) to route stories into those folders. As you can see, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to do things this way, because it maps closely to what a user wants to do with content.

In that, Freshly Squeezed deserve credit for adding some innovation to the market (there may well be a Windows or Unix client that already does this, but I can’t speak to that). All in all, their approach makes my collection of feeds much, much more useful. I’ve created a few folders that allow me to see much more quickly what weblogs have been updated, freeing me of the need for manually clicking on each feed, which was just a more expedient method of visiting each Web site individually anyhow. PulpFiction successfully changes that paradigm.

Unfortunately, the product is still very much a 1.0 release, in spite of the obvious care and effort that its authors have invested in it. There are the requisite bugs and crashes, of course, though they are hardly as onerous or frequent as those that test my patience with NewsMac. There are also a few small missing features — like full keyboard access — which are negligible shortcomings.

PulpFiction Filters

Stuck in the Preferences Ghetto

But what came to mind for me as soon as I started using PulpFicition is that it’s too hard to create these custom groupings of news stories. The filters feature, where you set up simple rules and actions that govern how PulpFiction will handle every new story it receives, is powerful and intuitive, but it requires users to drop out of the browsing mode and into the preferences window — this functionality should be accessible within the context of the main browsing area. For instance, I should be able to drag a news feed on top of a folder and be presented with a number of actions that will link the two.

Meta Makes Things Better

After thinking about the way PulpFicition atomizes (for lack of a better term) a feed’s news stories, I realized also that it could take one step further in this direction and implement meta views of these stories. Right now, PulpFicition handles each story in what might be described as a ‘physical’ sense. That is, each story can exist only once, and if you want to see it appear in more than one folder, you must set a filter to move it or copy it to its second location.

What I’m thinking of is something like Microsoft’s powerful Custom Views feature in its Entourage mail client for the Macintosh. This allows you to set up views that can effectively see across folders. So, you could have a story about, say, Apple’s quarterly financials that could be filed in a Macintosh folder, but it might also be available from a custom view set to find, say, all the latest business news. It combines physical data with metadata to an enormously useful result, and it has become indispensible to the way I manage email.

Given these two improvements, PulpFiction would be one of those incredibly successful 1.0 releases that inspire a huge dedicated following. That’s not intended to take away from what Freshly Squeezed Software has done though, as its current feature set has already raised the bar for this genre of software application. Which is to say, it’s already the best news aggregator I’ve ever used.


One Comment

  1. “Smart Folders” is another name for the “custom views” you seek, and they’re the main feature planned for the free upgrade to PulpFiction 1.1.

    We’ve gotta get the bug-fix 1.0.2 (with three more languages) and 1.0.3 out, and then we’re working on 1.1.

    Your suggestions have been heard. 🙂

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