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.
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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.