Last—I hope—thoughts on RSS

Yeah, I know. We’ve all been RSS’d to death for the past few days. But I still have a few unorganized thoughts on RSS I’d like to get out while they’re still fresh. I’ll try to be brief.

First, a new version of Reeder for iOS came out today, and, as promised, it syncs with Feedbin, Feedly, Fever, and Feed Wrangler. Sort of. In order to hit the App Store on or close to Google Reader’s drop dead date, the developer didn’t add the features that distinguish these services from one another. Thus, Reeder will sync with Feed Wrangler—the service I use—but the syncing doesn’t include Smart Streams.

As it happens, I don’t use Smart Streams, so basic syncing is good enough for me to switch back to Reeder from the free Feed Wrangler app. But since Smart Streams are one of Feed Wrangler’s signature features, and since many of its users have put a lot of effort into creating Smart Streams, I have to think this omission by Reeder is going to hurt it, at least in the short run. Reeder’s web site says “No support for smart streams yet in Reeder,” which is encouraging, but not definitive.

You may be wondering why I switched back to Reeder. Even though I don’t use Smart Streams, what was the point? The answer is that I find navigating feeds and articles easier and faster in Reeder. For example, in the Feed Wrangler app, the button for moving the the next article is awkwardly positioned at the lower right corner of the screen, where it’s hard to hit consistently with my left thumb.1

Feed Wrangler bottom mar

Reeder, on the other hand, understands that moving to the next article is the most common navigation maneuver, so it puts the next article button right in the center.

Reeder bottom bar

Even better, Reeder lets me swipe up to go to the next article. When you’ve been swiping up to scroll in one article, continuing that motion to move on to the next one seems only natural.

Also, tapping the Actions or Sharing button in the lower right corner brings up several options, in particular the ability to send a link to either Pinboard or Instapaper.

Reeder actions

As I said in my earlier post, Feed Wrangler gives you just one button there in the center of the bottom bar. If you set it to Pinboard, you can’t send links to Instapaper, and vice versa. I use both of these services—Instapaper for ephemeral things that I just don’t happen to have time to read now, and Pinboard for archiving items I want a permanent reference to.

The issue of feature mismatch between a feed reading app and a syncing service is the subject of this post by Brent Simmons. He makes a good argument in favor of having the app and the service tightly integrated and suggests that that might be why Black Pixel is taking so long to add syncing to NetNewsWire. I think Brent’s paternal feelings toward NNW are coloring his judgement. Although having its own customized sync service makes sense in the long run, Black Pixel should have included syncing with one or more of the commonly available services as an interim measure. By having no syncing at all in NNW 4, they’ve made their product irrelevant to the many users who read feeds on two or more devices and will not use a reader that doesn’t sync. They’re going to have to come up with something extremely compelling to get those users to pay attention again.

The tragedy of RSS is that there’s no spec for syncing. Like mail and Usenet news,2 it’s wonderfully robust because it’s distributed; but because it doesn’t have an IMAP-like server component, syncing is a hodgepodge of unrelated systems. Imagine how popular RSS would be if a syncing service were an expected part of every ISP’s offerings?

I wouldn’t call it a tragedy that I didn’t read Alex Kessinger’s posts on RSS when everyone was linking to them a week or two ago, but it certainly was a shame. I realized this while listening to his appearance on Gabe and Eric’s most recent episode of Generational.

Although the Google Reader site is shut down, the Google Feedfetcher process is still going strong, valiantly visiting sites and grabbing their feeds for no apparent purpose. My site logs show it visiting here hundreds of times today, faithfully doing its job like WALL•E. Will someone at Google remember to flip its switch off?

My subscriber counting script has shown no dropoff in the number people who subscribe to ANIAT through Google Reader. In fact, after Google’s announcement in March that it would be killing the service, my GR subscribers increased from about 3,200 to 3,500. Non-GR subscribers went from about 700 to 1,500 during that time, with most of that increase coming in June.

I assume that almost all of those who switched from Google Reader to one of the other services never went back to unsubscribe in Reader. There certainly wasn’t any need to. I kept my Reader subscriptions up until last week, but then decided to go to the Reader site and unsubscribe from everything. I can’t give you a rational reason; I guess I just wanted to be the one to pull the plug.

I don’t know how my ratio of Google to non-Google subscribers compares to the norm, but I have to believe that most sites had most of their subscribers through Reader. The shutdown must have thrown the economics of sponsoring RSS feeds for a loop. If I were marketing myself to an RSS sponsor, those 3,500 Google Reader subscriptions would be worthless now. In March, I could have made a reasonable claim to 3,900 real subscribers—now it’s 1,500. That’s gotta hurt.

  1. The corners tend to be the worst place to put smallish buttons because your thumb is either pulled back in too far or it’s stretched out so much that you tap the screen with the side, which makes it inaccurate. This is a reversal of the common situation on a computer, where Fitt’s Law makes the corners great places for menus or other actions because you can “throw” your mouse toward a corner and it will always stop there—you don’t have to aim. 

  2. How old am I? So old that I remember when ISPs considered their Usenet service a selling point. So old that I met and talked to John Norstad, which must seem to many of you like chatting with John von Neumann