By contrast, NetNewsWire 2.0, even its beta release, is speedy and stable — it feels rock solid. In this major revision, Ranchero has broadened the control that it offers users over XML subscriptions with the addition of smart lists, meta views similar to the Smart Playlists popularized by iTunes. However, it doesn’t quite match the fine-grained control available with PulpFiction. For one thing, in setting up a smart list, there is mysteriously no option for using a group (a feature analogous to folders into which you can stash subscriptions) as a criterion. This seems like a major oversight.
Below: You got your browser in my news reader. The NetNewsWire 2.0 beta with its embedded, surprisingly usable but still imperfect web browser.
NetNewsWire is also unable to use individual news articles — rather than subscriptions — as its base unit for user manipulation, at least to the same extent as PulpFiction. That approach was what made me so enthusiastic about PulpFiction to begin with, but one thing I’ve discovered is that I probably don’t need to control my feeds at that level. Looking at the way I’ve set up my filters in PulpFiction, they’re all organized by subscriptions — none of them bother to parse the feeds down any further, though to do so would require little additional effort. To be sure, there are some other benefits to being able to manipulate subscriptions at the article level, not the least of which is to be able to delete them selectively and reorganize them much like email messages. I miss those pluses a lot, but NetNewsWire approximates them just enough to satisfy me with its groups feature, which allows you to view several subscriptions at once while their constituent articles are intermingled and sorted.
The Half-Browser War
So having realized that I use one kind of feature far less than I intended, NetNewsWire 2.0 has also shown me that another kind of feature — one that I had previously dismissed out of hand — can actually be somewhat useful. Its built-in Web browser, essentially an embedded instance of Apple’s Safari, is cleverly worked into the article display interface, and it turns out to be a real pleasure to use.
Rather than popping up a new window interstitially, as many embedded browsers do, NetNewsWire 2.0 uses the tab metaphor to integrate the browsing experience into the user’s current interaction path, creating a seamless shift from one mode (news reading) to another (browsing). This is really a triumph of savvy interaction design; there’s nothing technologically groundbreaking here whatsoever but it’s a very successful feature nevertheless. All that Ranchero has done is take a building block available to any Mac OS X programmer — Web Kit — and applied just enough cleverness to create an elegant experience.
Because of this dollop of ingenuity, NetNewsWire is one instance in which the inclusion of an embedded browser actually makes sense for me. I’ve always wondered why applications bother with this feature, because without all of the extra tools that a full-fledged browser provides — history, bookmarks, cookie control, etc. — I inevitably find myself going back to my real browser. I really feel that, unless you’re willing to build an entire browser, it’s hard to justify embedding just half a browser.
The Market for Bookmarklets
A case in point: I use a bookmarklet to post quick entries to my Web site, which I access from my browser’s favorites toolbar. NetNewsWire’s browser provides no such toolbar, which is a real point of frustration. Of course, the program has fairly smooth integration with external ‘weblog editors’ such as Ranchero’s own MarsEdit, so I suppose I can use that (for US$24.95!) in lieu of a free bookmarklet. But I also use a Spurl bookmarklet to catalog pages I might one day want to return to but which have insufficient redeeming value to qualify as a weblog entry… these are pages that, very often, I encounter while browsing through articles from the feeds to which I subscribe. NetNewsWire provides no way for me to catalog these pages via Spurl except to load the articles in my primary browser.
Last Word for Now
It’s still early yet in my NetNewsWire 2.0 test drive, so I’m loathe to say whether this problem is going to be a show-stopper or not. So far, I’m pleased with this beta release; it feels smooth, stable and includes just enough of its own inventiveness to feel like a first-rate Macintosh application. That’s all I’m saying for now.