The New New NetNewsWire

NetNewsWireFor a few days now, I’ve been using the beta release of Ranchero software’s NetNewsWire 2.0 RSS aggregator. I’d tried it before in its 1.x release, but its relatively straightforward approach to organizing subscriptions left me unimpressed, so I gravitated to the arguably more creative NewsMac, first, and then PulpFiction, which I’ve been using day in and day out for months. PulpFiction, which in many ways remains one of the cleverest pieces of software of its kind, allows a powerful level of control over subscriptions, which is something I really liked a lot. However, though it has improved over time, it unfortunately remains dogged by speed issues and, on my PowerBook at least, regular crashes.

How Low Can You Go

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.

NetNewsWire User Interface

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.



  1. I bet there is a way to pass the URL on to Spurl using an AppleScript. Tell Brent from Ranchero about it and I bet he’ll figure it out for you. Something like that needn’t be a “show-stopper”!

  2. Yeah, it’s not a show-stopper, I agree. I was just being cavalier with that remark. I’ve had a few people suggest AppleScript as a replacement for those bookmarklets, which is a fine solution, I guess, but it somehow feels a bit like a cheat.

  3. Marc, you bring up a good point. When, in my post, I kind of disparaged the general idea of embedding browsers, I didn’t mean that there was no merit to the concept… such browsers can be very useful if treated with a bit of ingenuity. Some of what you describe above in terms of embedded browsers would make the NetNewsWire 2.0 browser much more useful, for instance. And of course, that does lead us down the road of micro-content browsers, which I think can be very powerful.

    In fact, one of the best micro-content browsers ever made is probably running on your Mac right now in the form of the iTunes Music Store. That’s an example of an embedded browser that’s not just an instance of Safari — it’s been tailored to meet the specific needs of the content it’s meant for.

  4. Khoi, you’re exactly right, the ITMS is an easily overlooked example of a tightly integrated desktop/web hybrid, especially as it’s not a WebKit view, but a purpose-built XML-described UI parsed within iTunes.

    …in terms of the more general-purpose browser angle, I’d been thinking of the Mozilla Amazon Browser as a pretty good example (as opposed to the app-specific, locked-down ITMS model.)

    The power of XUL plugins for FireFox is compelling, but like Hicks, I’m holding judgement until the ‘Acquafication’ release, to see if I can make it a home (preferring Camino for work, and Safari/Saft, OmniWeb elsewhere… Shiira’s nice, but it too lacks bookmarklets at the moment!)

    As an aside, I’m a bit conflicted about wanting the Camino guys to merge their Mac-specific changes into the main Mozilla trunk — I really like the Mac-feel of Camino, but also value the network effect of using FireFox, and the configurability (elegance v flexibility… I want both!)

    It is interesting to look at the flux in UI techniques that’s gaining steam… we’ve long had Sherlock as an XML declarative interface shell, I’m sure many have thought about Safari+Sherlock as Kottke opined, and of course Mozilla’s XUL ambitions, the high-profile ITMS, and Dashboard, Avalon etc. etc.

    …interesting times!

    Re NNW2, if you look at Shiira, you see the relatively limited effort required to produce a usable browser via the WebKit (if you’re not trying to be as ambitious as OmniWeb), mainly re accessing Safari bookmarks/history… it wouldn’t take much for Ranchero to add basic access to these items, along with a custom toolbar for bookmarklets and favourites… but of course embedded browsers are a bit controversial, whereas obfuscating things a bit more a la the ITMS, can help assuage the doubters.

    If NNW2 were to go the way I’ve described, it could become extremely useful as an information hub. Paired with a blog, and blog editor it could be a useful information/knowledge/collaboration app, but in this regard, something like Flow ( is more appopriate (purpose-built)… I’ve been bugging them since beta testing to add bookmarklet support as a first basic move in this direction.

  5. NewsFire is quite elegant. But I think it’s a case of beauty at the expense of substance. I couldn’t see myself using NewsFire for a particularly long time because it doesn’t allow enough flexibility. Still, I applaud the authors — they’re also responsible for Acquisition, which is incredibly slick.

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