NetNewsWire’s Stinkin’ Synching

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.

Synchronization Watch

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.

Partly Cloudy

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.

  1. I too was a die hard NewsNetWire user. Couldn’t use any other app to let me feeds in. However, it too became powerless with the enormous amounts of data being pulled in. And as the volume grew, the options shrank.

    Until one day, with one click of a button… my entire RSS feeds disappeared along with any backups of my OPML file. 700 Carefully organized and dialed up feeds…. Gone. Even tried to get them back with the online sync… it someone synced to nothing as well.

    So… I’m thinking of abandoning ship on the NewsNetWire… but want a desktop that I can manage with and have Google Reader back me up. Then I saw the release that these two were going to get it on. So thanks for the heads up!

    What do you suggest? I think I’m going to do whatever it is that you’re going to do 😉

  2. Funny I was worried that Google Reader would mess up my NNW data (I’ve always used NNW/NewsGator).

    I think you went past the part about this being a beta too quickly. It probably doesn’t mess up everyone’s data, but the purpose of having the beta is to find out about the situations where it does cause problems and unfortunately you were one of those people. I wouldn’t have turned on the syncing before making sure the part I cared about was backed up. Comes with the territory of trying something before it’s officially released.

  3. The term “beta” has been shorn of all objective meaning. (We have Google to thank for that, at least in part.) When you make an application generally available for download to the public, rather than to a select group of “beta-testers” (remember that term?), you are releasing it. It’s a full release. You have all of the same obligations and responsibilities as if you called it “1.0 final golden master release candidate.”

    If a developer has a version that needs testing, develop and maintain a proper external testing program, vet the testers so that you’ll get good feedback and information before you release the application out into the wild. If it is a public release, it’s a public release, no matter what greek letters are assigned to it.

  4. Christophe, does the term ‘beta’ still lack “all objective meaning” if it’s accompanied by a disclaimer such as the following?

    “It’s still a beta, though: it’s unfinished software, with bugs — known and unknown — and incomplete features. We say this not to scare you off but to inform. NetNewsWire has a seven-year-long tradition of doing public betas because we know there are lots of folks who like to help — and we appreciate the help.”

    Meanwhile, I should think that NNW users would be more concerned with 3.2’s intentionally omitted features than with obviously unintended bugs.

  5. Regarding RSS readers I seem to have followed the exact path. Started with NetNewsWire and then switched to Google reader to have access on several computers. Although interface and “application” aspect of NetNewsWire was better I feel, the fact that it didn’t live online was the downfall.

  6. I’m quite annoyed with NewsGator about all this.

    They told their users to switch to a beta release that has giant warning signs all over it. That’s a stupid idea, and potentially ruinous.

    They singlehandedly destroyed the market for competitive RSS readers by giving away two of the best products (one Win, one Mac), which carries with it a responsibility — you don’t destroy the market and a couple years later say, oops, our bad, rewind. You figure out a plan instead of an abrupt announcement. (Maybe the money is running out and they lack the time to make appropriate transitions.)

    Brent Simmons is honest in the beta notes that multiple NNW features (clippings, folders, etc.) aren’t available with Google Reader and he doesn’t know what he’ll do about that.

    Couple that with the fact that future NNW will be limited in some fashion with ads, plus features available for upgrade and no discussion of what paid NNW Pro users will get given that they’re moving to a new version number.

    Very sad.

  7. Thanks for the warning. I was literally _just_ about to install it and test it out. But now that I know there’s a possibility it could mess with my Google Reader account, I’ll wait for a stable release.

    I, too, did not figure it could mess with my GR account after reading the “how to back up NNW” info and seeing no mention of needing to back up GR.

  8. it’s unfinished software, with bugs — known and unknown — and incomplete features.

    Nearly every application ever written, upon release, has known and unknown bugs, and incomplete features. That’s not so much a disclaimer as a statement of the nature of software.

    If a piece of software is released to the general public, it has to be assumed that the public will use it day-to-day with valuable data; what else are they going to test it on? Releasing buggy software as “beta” to the general public just means you are doing a full release, only very buggy. I’m not sure I’d classify that as extremely professional.

    Gmail left “beta” on July 7, 2009. I doubt anyone would have thought it acceptable if it had deleted all of the users’ emails, bounced all incoming mail, or automatically replied to them with spam on July 6th, just because it was in “beta.”

  9. I’m curious what exactly happened to your Google Reader data when you ran NNW. I used to be a NNW user but, much like you, switched to other products a few years back and only this recent Google Reader support feature made me switch back.

    Now, I’ve only started to be a Google Reader user, but I imported all my feeds, organized them in folders, etc, and then installed NNW and synced and had absolutely no issues whatsoever. What happened for you?

  10. It kinda sounds like you had organization of feeds A) on NetNewsWire and perhaps different organization of feeds B) on Google Reader, and you told it to let loose and sync away, and it obediently replicated B) onto A) and you lost your NetNewsWire organization scheme.

    I’m kinda not surprised. I used NetNewsWire from day one, abandoned it when Google Reader presented a superior experience, and then when this beta came out, I did what amounted to a clean install—I deleted all my NetNewsWrire prefs and caches and had it replicate my Google Reader hierarchy and feed status, and it did that flawlessly (and wow, fast!).

    I’m now happily using both…and the only thing I’m waiting on is a NetNewsWire iPhone app version that has this wonderful new syncing behavior.

    I hate to say it, but your story (and attendant somewhat overblown outrage) kinda sounds like user expectation error…like you expected the beta would somehow find a happy medium between two sets of feeds/folders/read statuses, judging which set you really preferred, or which combination. I would not expect that it could do that. So, maybe a little harsh on your part?

  11. @Garrett I think Khoi had all of his feeds nicely arranged in Google Reader, but when he installed the latest NNW Beta it noticed it had old subscriptions itself and merged them with Google Reader, taking precedence over his carefully-organised GR folders.

    It’s astounding that no options are presented when NNW is provided with the Google Reader login details, it should at the very least offer a first-run sync wizard with the following options:
    NNW -> GR (one way)
    Merge (NNW folder preference)
    Merge (GR folder preference)
    NNW –< GR (one way) Oh, and a cancel option, of course. Ideally it'd offer some sort of pre-merge backup of its own, so you could roll back if things went horribly wrong. I was also bitten by having data in both sources, but as I'd only played with Google Reader relatively briefly, and subscribed to only a few feeds which were also in NNW, it just meant that I had to rearrange them back into the folders I'd placed them. If I'd lost all my feed arrangements, as it appears Khoi has, I'd be positively fuming. Funnily enough, the experience I had was bumpy enough to make me revisit Google Reader, and now that it's populated with all my feeds I've found I'm much happier with it than I have been with NNW lately. Result: the NNW Mac app is on remand, pending review, and deleted from my iPhone as they didn't wait for the GR-syncing version to appear in the App Store first (I faltered with Gazette, then settled on Byline). I suspect my NNW days are numbered, too.

  12. I’ve followed a similar path, using NNW exclusively a couple years ago, slowly switching to web-only Google Reader after trying to reconcile a desktop client and web client (NewsGator’s web client never really thrilled me) and picked up the NNW beta.

    I would have been in the same boat you are, with this difference — I saw that NNW was “synching” with Reader, and not knowing what it’d do with subscriptions, opted to just open NNW and manually turn on synching later. The sync button is a little more clear in the preferences — it says “Merge,” so I took the hint to delete all my subscriptions in NNW. It was a list I hadn’t used in a year or so, anyway.

    The wording needs to be stronger, and the sync needs to prompt for directional guidance, for sure.

  13. Synching doesn’t work with the Google Reader setup either as somehow I have 836 unread items in NNW and 534 unread items in Google Reader. Sigh.

  14. A few folks have already pointed out some of the things that I decided to leave out of my post for fear of making it even more rambling than it already is, but I’ll just reiterate here…

    Stef Pause has the spirit of it just right when he enumerated the many different possibilities that ‘sync with Google Reader’ means. I’m not sure I would say that each one of them has to be spelled out laboriously for the user, but there absolutely should have been some hint of what might happen in each of these instances.

    More to the point though: shouldn’t NNW go beyond just leaving it in the hands of users? If NNW had ever really taken synching seriously (I’d argue that it never has), it would have a built-in mechanism for automatically backing up local stores and remote stores of data. So the first time I ran the new version, it really should have captured what was on Google Reader as well as what was already in its database on my desktop and saved backups for me. That way, after trying out the results, I could have opted to switch back to one of the previous instances of data.

    This goes to my argument against a point that a few people made: that really it’s my responsibility to protect my own data, that I was messing with beta and that any loss of data is on me.

    I just don’t buy that. That’s not a user-centric point of view at all. Really, it’s up to the developer to make data manipulation painless and worry-free for the user. And don’t tell me it can’t be done. It absolutely can. Look at Dropbox. That product gets synching absolutely right, and it saves data backups, too boot. It’s worry free, and it allows the user to focus on the real value of the data, rather than having to anticipate and protect against the programmer’s failures. And, in the parlance of the day, NNW 3.2 beta is a huge developer ‘fail.’

  15. Everyone concerned with bugs in the beta release of NNW 3.2 would do well to keep an eye on the *actively updated* known bugs page: Then again, those concerned with bugs in a beta release—which should be most people—would do well to sit on their hands and exercise patience for the next month and wait till a release that’s intended for not just the brave who must live on the cutting edge, danger be damned.

  16. So you knowingly used a product that has had a lot of synching trouble in the past, over many versions, yet you presumed that the newest beta (!) release containing the first implementation of synching with Google Reader would be completely flawless? C’mon. You messed up. Don’t blame the developer.

  17. I’m also curious to know what kind of damage was done to your Reader data – mine *seems* to be completely fine, but it’s possible that things have gone weird behind the scenes somewhere.

  18. Reading the major news sources is a daily responsibility that I share with my colleague. Google Reader makes it easy for us to efficiently keep tabs on the latest news together. Not needing to worry about syncing is what sold me on Google Reader. My longstanding hang-up, though, was its design; by Google standards, it just seems a bit bloated. But Firefox + Stylish + some nice minimalist styles = happy research assistants.

  19. I’ve been using NNW from the beginning and have also been frustrated by the apparent lack of maturation. Syncing has been a problem since the beginning. For example, Newsgator syncing would work fine for a while, and then after a few months you’d suddenly get a strange message asking you if you wanted to delete feeds and when you hit cancel, all the feeds in the list would be moved out of their directory structure. I have 800 feeds so I would be left with a somewhat useless list of flattened feeds (ie the situation you are in now). This bug and others have persisted for years showing up every couple of months.

    I know a major 4.0 revamp has been planned for over a year but the main focus developer has been feature cutting. This can be the mark of someone who is refining and focusing but it can also signal reduced ambitions.

    Re the beta, I also had my google feeds blown away, but luckily I had an OPLM backup so I was able to restore… syncing has since been smooth although it no longer works with NNW’s iphone client which has yet to be updated.

    My big remaining problem with the NNW beta is the large ad block it includes. The beta pages give no indication of whether there will be a paid option to get rid of the ad block and I’m pretty religious about not looking at ads in standalone apps. There are enough on the web (and in the feeds themselves).

    Despite everything I still prefer reading feeds in NNW. I don’t know of anything faster for consuming larger numbers of feeds quickly. I gave Google Reader a one month chance to convert me and never warmed up to the interface and I’ve tried virtually ever other major standalone mac client…

    My bet is that we’ll be seeing this sort of situation more and more with standalone apps that are duplicated for free by google on the web. Their center of gravity is too strong and they are pulling users in massive numbers. I still prefer standalone apps for chat/email/writing documents/news reading etc and feel strongly that all these apps are functionally and practically far ahead of their google counterparts, but my guess is applications are swimming against a strong tide and will increasingly be an isolated niche market with tiny, increasing irrelevant, but dedicated followings and that development of these apps will be carried by very small teams of developers who are always fighting for resources.

  20. Do you use any Google Reader iPhone apps? (I’m assuming you have an iPhone…). The reason I use NNW is because it syncs to the iPhone app so I can read through the feeds on the subway on the way to/from work and then sync it when I get out. I’m sure Google has a nice mobile interface for Reader and there must be apps for it but do they have an offline cache? Any suggestions anybody?

  21. I had something similar happen when I first tried Flock back in the day. It said it would “integrate” with my Delicious account, so I typed in my Delicious credentials and instead of just downloading the links from there, it downloaded them, then erased them from Delicious, and then re-uploaded them all completely out of order with that day’s date as the import date. Terrible. Luckily this was back in the day when Delicious would bend over backwards for its users so they were able to manually pull a backup for me after a few weeks, but it was awful. The cardinal sin for any application is to screw up *another* application’s data.

    I agree with you on how great Google Reader is, by the way. For all the talk about how RSS and newsreaders are “dead, thanks to Twitter”, I just don’t see it. They are more and more useful to me every day. The only downside is obviously overload.

  22. I did what everyone should do: turn away from NNW. I paid for the application, happily so, some years ago — to now have to accept ads I cannot opt out of, be forced to migrate to Google Reader after waiting for the promised and roadmapped proper sync-mechanism for years?

    Developer fuckup, marketing fuckup, application fuckup.

    Bye bye, NetNewsWire, it was good times.

  23. Joe M, Byline is quite nice. NNW iPhone will have to do a bit of work to match it.

    Even after all the fuckups, NetNewsWire still has news item stylesheets, which to me is something of a killer feature, so I’m afraid I lack the moral fibre to go around abandoning it on principle.

  24. i had (almost) exactly the same experience as khoi. i tried the new nnw beta and saw the organization of my google reader subscriptions totally nuked. i say almost because before trying the nnw beta, i saved an opml backup of my google reader subscriptions. after they were nuked, it took a couple of tries, but i was able to restore them.

    the moral of my story is that this is beta software. remember what that means. back up your data. proceed carefully. ymmv…

  25. Excellent post. I exported my feeds out of NNW, uninstalled NNW, imported feeds into Google Reader, organized them into folders, and will use tagging and starring instead of clippings, and then bought Byline for my iphone.

    NNW syncing never worked well at all. I am happy to move on. I do not want a piece of software that “upgrades” to a very clear “downgrade” without full disclosure beforehand.

  26. This may be a beta, but it’s a Beta NNW effectively forced everyone who used NewsGator syncing to switch to. I have been a loyal NNW user for many years. Before it was free I was a paid-up user. I was happy to pay because there was no doubt that NNW was the very best news reader.

    With this one release I have gone from the worlds biggest NNW fan to the worlds biggest NNW hater. I had hundreds of feeds all carefully organised into nested folders – one sync with Google Reader later I had a giant mess of feeds that had lost all their sub-folders, and all my clippings were GONE. Surely NNW should have provided a way of keeping the clippings, even if they wouldn’t sync any more, or, AT THE VERY LEAST provided a way to export them to an HMTL file or something rather than simply deleting them!

    I have to say I have never seen greater arrogance and indifference in how an app treats people’s data. It’s mind-blowing just how arrogant NNW have been here. For that they derseve to go broke and go out of business. No one should abuse their customers like that and survive.

    I produce a weekly Apple News podcast, synchronised clippings is how I gathered my news stories for compilation into the show. That work flow is destroyed now.

    I need a new client that gives me back everything which NNW had given me before this catasrophic ‘updage’. I’m happy to pay for one, so, any talented Mac developers out there, get cracking, a whole new market has just opened up thanks to NewGator’s total arrogance and general carelessness and ineptitude!

  27. Right now, I have 22 unread items on my Google Reader account.

    According to my “synchronized” NNW desktop application, I have 43 unread items.

    I painstakingly cross-checked all of my subscriptions to make sure there were no duplicates (installing the beta also horribly mangled my feeds) and both lists are identical. So what gives?

    I’ve been a loyal NNW user, but I’m sticking with Google Reader from now on. You know an application has failed when its release pushes many users exclusively to a different platform.

  28. The clippings that are GONE should be at ~/Library/Application Support/NetNewsWire/ExportedClippings/ pending the user interface showing them again. The problem with nested folders appears to be caused by Google Reader not supporting nested folders.

    I’d like to have a proper SyncServices (“Mobile Me”) syncing option that syncs clippings and open tabs as well as news items but I suppose that I’ll never have one.

  29. Speaking of ‘a horrible and incompetent way for software to behave’, upgrading NNW and after deleting the old app alerting it doesn’t work in 10.4 is horrible too.

  30. NNW never synced properly.
    I am now using Google Reader web based on my Mac.
    I use Byline on my iPhone which is really nice and fast. There are a few things missing and so I jump back to Google Reader Mobile on the iPhone for that. I also go to the real sit. On the iPhone to manage subscriptions.
    Will look at new NNW on th. iPhone when that comes out. For now, Byline is very well executed and elegant, and it has offline caching.

  31. Khoi, I have a ton of respect for you and your opinions, but I also have a ton of respect for Brent Simmons, developer of NNW. I think your assessment of the app, and the developer and his motivations are much too harsh.

    I installed the beta, anxious to have GReader integration, as I was on the verge of switching from NNW, which I’ve been a paid user of since the get-go, to Google Reader because I wanted to use Google’s mobile interface on the iPhone, and was never happy with the sluggishness of NewsGator.

    And you know what? It made an absolute mess of my feeds locally, and on Google Reader. But, it’s BETA software. No matter what people say that the term “beta” doesn’t mean anythingЁ that’s bullshit. It means “this could blow up in your face.” It said so right on the special beta-only website. Very explicitly. No doubt Brent still has work to do on syncing, including the interaction of the user and their control over what syncs to what, and how.

    I took Brent’s suggestion to heart and had backups of my data and preferences, which after first launch, I reset completely. Since everything on Google was a subset of what I had on NNW, I wiped out Google, and relaunched. This time, it synced much better.

    I don’t blame Brent for my sync going astray. I dutifully filed a number of bugs through his excellent feedback mechanism, most of which have already been squashed in the week since I installed it. It’s part of the agreement: I get to play with new and shiny, he gets feedback when things aren’t quite fully-baked.

    Since then, I’ve had no problems, the software is faster and I’ve used the new Instapaper integration often. In fact, I’m posting this comment from NNW, even.

    What I really wonder, respectfully, was if you had spent the time you took to write this post and proposed something constructively, could we have had a discussion on how to get sync (something notoriously tought) to work from a user’s perspective. Because complaining about beta software breaking is like complaining coffee is hot.

  32. Brian: I did offer something constructive: suggestions to add warnings in three places to back up Google Reader prior to trying the beta software. That’s all I ask.

    Based on the fact that many people have also expressed similar frustrations, I don’t think my criticisms were much too harsh at all. I still regard NetNewsWire’s beta as sloppy and irresponsible.

  33. Brian,

    I know Brent and he’s a great guy, but he and NewsGator messed up on “messaging” this update.

    NewsGator continues (the last time I checked) to urge Mac users to update to the “latest version,” which is a beta labeled as a beta.

    “But, it’s BETA software.” Right. And I can’t think of the last time a firm suggested i move from stable release 3.1 to unstable, beta, in flux 3.2b. NewsGator, if they wanted to serve everyone right, should have delayed the sync turnoff until Brent had a fully tested 3.2 version ready to release that incorporated the necessary changes that he’s now working hard to put in.

    Or, NewsGator could keep sync running for Mac users until 3.2 ships (plus a week or two). I’m a long-time happy user of NetNewsWire until this whole thing.

    Mixed messages.

  34. This is also an interesting example of the downside of cloud-based applications. If your data is remote, and its backups are remote, you don’t have access to the backups to restore or repair from them. If NNW beta had messed up local preferences, you could have just restored from last night’s backup. If you rely on external services, you are at their mercy: will Google be able to fulfill a request to reset your preferences to the way they were a day ago?

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.