Unread Counts

NetNewsWire creator Brent Simmons on unread counts:

Nick Bradbury, FeedDemon author, and I have talked many times over the years about how we’d design an RSS reader were we starting over. The first thing we always say: No unread counts!

It’s true: showing an unread count was something I regretted. It was one of many things I did to make FeedDemon work like an email client so it would seem familiar to new users. I’m sure it did make it seem familiar, but in the long run it was a mistake I never overcame.

Treating RSS like email makes it a chore to read, but customers were so used to FeedDemon working like an email client that any attempt to make it less email-like was met with resistance. So instead I came up with things like the Panic Button which were just band-aids that didn’t address the underlying problem.

Looking back, I wonder how RSS readers would’ve fared if their developers hadn’t followed the email client design. It’s partly because we did that the RSS reader (but not RSS itself) is now considered dead.

Anti-social FeedDemon (Killing Features, Part II)

Last night the changes to Google Reader went live, and as promised, they've removed the sharing features. This means that the sharing features in FeedDemon which rely on Google Reader will eventually stop working, so I'm forced to remove them.

A few years ago I wrote about the pain and pleasure of killing features, but deleting sharing from FeedDemon has been all pain and no pleasure. Those features took a long time to create, and I relied on them every day. Seeing what my friends are sharing, and sharing back with them, has become part of my daily routine.

I don't fault the Reader team for removing those features – it makes sense for Reader to integrate more tightly with Google+. And I certainly don't fault them for eventually removing those features from their unofficial API. If anything, I want to thank them for letting developers such as myself use their API for free for so long.

But I'm surprised that the Reader team didn't make the transition to Google+ an easy one. I realize that Reader users are a dwindling bunch, and most of them never used the sharing features. But many of those who relied on sharing are influencers, including well-known tech journalists, bloggers and developers. It strikes me as a bad idea to leave these people with a sour first impression of Google+, yet that will be the result of the painful transition from Reader sharing to Google+ sharing.

As far as FeedDemon goes, in a few days I'll have a build ready which removes the sharing features. But I'm going to hold off releasing this build for a little while since sharing still works at the API level. In other words, right now you can still use the Reader sharing features in third-party apps like FeedDemon even though those features aren't available in Reader itself.

Before the end of the year, though, there will be a new FeedDemon release which does away with sharing, and every FeedDemon customer will need to upgrade. That pains me, because like every developer, I'm used to having new releases improve upon previous ones. For some this release will feel like a downgrade, and I know I'll take some heat for it since many customers won't be aware of the reasons for the loss of sharing.

Browsers and RSS

Continuing where I left off yesterday, the latest round of "RSS is dead" articles is partly the result of this post by Kroc Camen which claims that RSS is in trouble because browser vendors are failing to make RSS usable.

While I don’t see this as any real threat to RSS, I do agree that browsers do a poor job handling RSS.  But I would argue that browsers shouldn’t try to be RSS readers, any more than they should try to be email clients.  I’m obviously biased here since I develop FeedDemon, but I’m far from the only one who doesn’t need their browser to be a full-fledged RSS reader. 

I might think otherwise if any major browser vendor was visionary enough to "bake" RSS reading into the entire browsing experience and make it an equal partner to reading HTML.  As Camen says:

Why do we go through the same daily routine of checking certain sites over and over again? Can’t our computers be more intelligent here? Isn’t the purpose of the computer / browser to save us time!? Why doesn’t the browser, when you open it, tell you how many new items there are, on what sites you commonly visit, without you having ever configured this?

That’s certainly a web browser I would use, but I don’t see it happening.  Browser vendors consider reading RSS to be too much of a niche activity to re-design their products around it.  (Aside: this is why I use FeedDemon as my primary browser – it’s a full-fledged web browser that has RSS baked into it.)

Since browser vendors are unlikely to substantially improve the RSS reading experience, I think they should drop it entirely, but at the same time they should make the benefits of RSS accessible to less tech-savvy users.  Browsers are being extolled as platforms these days, so how about making these platforms more helpful when dealing with different types of content?

Provide obvious RSS auto-discovery and perhaps basic RSS viewing, and make it easy to subscribe to feeds in an external RSS reader.  Just as clicking a mailto: link opens your email client, clicking a feed link/icon should open your RSS reader (regardless of whether it’s desktop- or web-based).

If the user doesn’t have an RSS reader, don’t simply show a cryptic error message that says there’s no associated application, or the MIME type isn’t recognized.  Provide some basic info about what RSS reading is.  Some browser vendors could go a step further and link to the RSS reader category in their app stores.

Browsers don’t need to provide image editing features just because they can display images, but they do need to make it easy to copy or save the images so they can be opened in whatever application you like.  Likewise, browsers don’t need to offer RSS reading features just because they can detect RSS – they just need to make people aware of RSS, and make it easy for them to use an RSS reader.

RSS: Dead, Dying or Pining for the Fjords?

I've tried to stay out of the whole "RSS is dead" thing.  Really, I have.  But just when I think people have stopped saying "RSS is dead," someone comes along and says it again, and everyone gets all worked up.

I mean, it's been over a year-and-a-half since Steve Gillmor's RSS is dead post.  If something really is pushing up the daisies, surely we wouldn't have to keep pronouncing it dead all the time?

In all fairness, when I read Gillmor's original piece I didn't think he meant RSS was dead.  That would be like saying "XML is dead" or "HTML is dead" – like RSS, these will be with us for a very long time because they're the plumbing behind so many critically important things.  Steve may be a little loopy (word has it this was caused by listening to "Revolution #9" during a bad acid trip), but he's not crazy enough to rip up the plumbing.

Instead, I read it as though he was saying that RSS readers are dead.  As in, products like FeedDemon.  And I can see his point.  Years ago we all hoped RSS readers would become mainstream, but that never happened.  They're too oriented towards power users, require too much work to ensure you keep getting stuff you're interested in, and don't provide the social aspects of Twitter and Facebook (which IMO are the offspring of RSS readers).

But while it's true that dedicated RSS readers like FeedDemon didn't find mainstream acceptance, that doesn't mean they're dead, dying or even wounded.  It just means their audience is smaller than it perhaps could've been.  We're still talking about an audience of millions of people – not enough for a large company to consider a decent target market, but more than enough to enable smaller companies with the right products to stay alive for years to come.

And I have to point out that while RSS readers may have a niche audience, that audience includes the writers and editors of many of the web sites and blogs you visit.  Yes, many of the people writing the latest crop of  "RSS is dead" articles are using an RSS reader to keep up with the discussion.  They don't really believe RSS is dead, but they do know that writing about it will bring more traffic to their sites.  Which to me is a pretty sure sign that RSS is alive and well.

Perfect Attention (With a Little Help from My Friends)

Back in the summer of 2007, I wrote this post about how aggregators should be able to find articles that interest you by paying attention to what people like you are reading.  It's a very simple idea – after all, if 10 people you know all like the same article, then there's a pretty good chance you'll like it, too.  But as is often the case, the simplest ideas often take the longest to implement.

Using an aggregator like FeedDemon ensures that you'll see stuff that interests you because you usually only subscribe to feeds you find interesting.  But there are tons of feeds you don't know about that may interest you, so there's a good chance you're missing a lot of articles you'd enjoy.

The traditional approach to solving this problem has been to show you the stuff that's interesting to everyone (even "mainstream" news sites like CNN show the popularity of each article).  But I personally hate this approach because it shows me so much stuff I don't care about it.  For example, a lot of people may find the latest antics of pop culture icons interesting, but I couldn't care less.

I don't want to see articles about Britney Spears, I don't want to know how many women Tiger Woods slept with, and I don't care if Kanye just made an ass out of himself.  But I do want to know if Google has an interesting new service, or if Microsoft released a new development tool, or if someone declared that RSS is dead (again).  And I also want to know when someone has written a great response to an article that interests me.

So knowing what everyone is paying attention to doesn't interest me, but knowing what people like me are paying attention to is very interesting.  I've tried to tackle this in FeedDemon for quite a while with little to show for it, but when Google Reader added the ability to follow people, I knew it was the "secret sauce" to finally solving this problem.

Long story short: the next build of FeedDemon will include articles from people you follow in Google Reader, and these articles will help fuel the "Popular in My Subscriptions" page which until now has shown only the articles that are popular in feeds you subscribe to.  I've been using a build of FeedDemon with this feature enabled (here's a screenshot), and it has brought me tons of interesting articles that I would otherwise has missed (many of which I've added to my Shared Items feed).

PS: I should add that if you only see stuff that's interesting to people you follow, then there's a risk that you'll end up wearing blinders and miss "general interest" articles that may be relevant to you.  For this reason, FeedDemon also looks at the feeds you're subscribed to and figures out which articles in those feeds have been "liked" the most by everyone (not just people you follow), and it interweaves those articles into the "Popular in My Subscriptions" page.

A-Listers Are Late to the Stream

Lately the geekosphere has been buzzing about how RSS is being replaced by the real-time stream.  Instead of getting our information from syndicated blog feeds, we’re now getting it via streams from Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, et al.

This isn’t new.  The only thing that’s new is that “A-list” bloggers are finally getting wise to it.

Outside the geekosphere, people have long relied on RSS to bring them a real-time stream.  But this stream doesn’t flow from Twitter or FriendFeed – it flows from the companies they work for and from the feeds they rely on to do their job.

Since introducing FeedDemon back in 2003, I’ve talked with countless people who are subscribed to feeds which tell them when their company (or a competitor) is mentioned anywhere on the web.  They’re subscribed to intranet feeds which let them know when a customer sends a complaint or compliment.  They rely on internal feeds to bring them the latest information about other projects going on inside their company, or tell them when an HR policy has changed or when an impromptu company-wide meeting is taking place.  More recently, they subscribe to SharePoint feeds which involve them in a real-time conversation with their co-workers.  Some of them even have feeds which alert them to the status of their web servers.

These people have relied on RSS-based real-time streams since the first day they used an RSS reader, and I count myself as one of these people.  For example, I’m subscribed to several feeds from NewsGator’s FogBugz server which are absolutely critical to me -  especially right after a product release – because they bring me error reports that customers send from FeedDemon.  If I get several similar error reports, I have to drop everything and focus on figuring out the problem so I can release a fix as soon as possible.

BTW, this is also why the river of news approach doesn’t work for everyone.  If you’re subscribed solely to feeds from popular blogs and web sites, a river of news is ideal – you get a flow of information that you can scan for stuff that looks interesting.  If you miss a story, no big deal – it’ll float by later if it’s important.

But if you’re also subscribed to feeds critical to your business, this approach is unacceptable.  You don’t want a flow of uncategorized, unprioritized information that combines articles from Boing Boing with items from your company’s internal feeds.  You need separation between the stuff you read for fun and the stuff you read because it’s critical to your job.

Is Your RSS Reader Broken?

Dare Obasanjo believes that RSS readers which are modeled after email clients are broken:

“…it seems to me that the way we think of RSS readers needs to fundamentally change. Presenting information as a news feed where the user isn’t pressured to read every item or feel like a failure is one way to move the needle on the user experience here.”

I couldn’t agree more.  The fact that FeedDemon’s Panic Button is one of its most popular features is a clear sign that information overload resulting from “RSS as email” is a problem among my customers.

It’s no secret that I regret designing the first version of FeedDemon to work like an email client, and every version since then has been an attempt to drag myself and my customers (some of them screaming and kicking) away from that model.  It’s been such a slow crawl out of that hole that I’ve often considered building something brand new instead of trying to morph FeedDemon into a tool that doesn’t make information consumption a chore.

But then I come to my senses, realize that I love being able to focus on FeedDemon, and get back to making it into the application it should be :)

So what do I think it should be?  I think an RSS reader should enable you to read individual feeds if that’s what you’re into, but at the same time it should sift through the noise and find the articles that interest you. 

Many services attempt to do that by aggregating the most popular articles around the web, but I’m not a fan of that approach since it brings you too much stuff you don’t care about (you might not, for example, care about Britney Spears regardless of whether everyone else does).  Instead, my approach has been to have FeedDemon pay attention to the stuff you’re paying attention to, and use that to locate the stuff that’s most relevant.

You can see this most clearly in features like “Popular Topics” (which shows you the most popular articles across all your feeds), and the new dashboard-like start page in FeedDemon 3.0.  If you’re unfamiliar with FeedDemon, or you’re not using the FeedDemon 3.0 Beta, here’s what they look like (click to enlarge):

FD3 Popular Topics   FD3 Dashboard

These are the kinds of features I want to focus much more on in FeedDemon.  I want to eventually build a tool that automatically brings you the stuff that’s important to both you and the people you “follow” with as little effort from you as possible and without violating your privacy in the process.

In my mind the “RSS as email” approach has been dead for quite some time, and it’s been a while since I invested in email-like features.  The real question is whether long-time users of RSS readers are ready to give up how they’re used to consuming their feeds (?).

ANN: FeedDemon 3.0 Beta 4 with Google Reader Synchronization

It has been fun watching the news spread about the latest FeedDemon 3.0 Beta even though I never “officially” announced it.  It started with a couple tweets from me, then spread to Twitter at large and on to web sites like Digital Inspiration, Shooting at Bubbles and Lifehacker.

So, I guess I should make it official now: the first beta of FeedDemon 3.0 with Google Reader synchronization is now available from the FeedDemon Beta Site.  If you're new to FeedDemon, you'll be given a choice between NewsGator and Google Reader synchronization at startup.  If you're already synching with NewsGator, you can convert to Google Reader by selecting Tools | Synchronization Options | Advanced and clicking “Convert Now.”

Since this is a beta release, it comes with the usual “use at your own risk” warning.  I try to make my beta releases very reliable, but there’s still a good chance you’ll encounter a hair-raising bug or two, so please don’t download this unless you’re comfortable using unfinished software.

I should also add that Google Reader synchronization is still a work in progress.  I’ve been using it for several weeks and overall it has worked very well, but there are some missing pieces.  In particular:

  1. Tags you add in FeedDemon are synched with Google Reader, but tags you add in Google Reader won’t always sync back to FeedDemon.
  2. If you convert from NewsGator synching to Google Reader synching, flags/tags you add to items that existed prior to the conversion may not sync with Google Reader.
  3. If you have thousands of unread items in Google Reader, FeedDemon will not download them all.  This isn’t actually a bug – I do this on purpose, primarily because I couldn’t justify consuming so much of someone else’s bandwidth to download items you’ll most likely never read.  If you have a ton of old, unread items in Google Reader, I recommend selecting “Mark all Read” to be free of them :)

The first two issues are ones I’m actively working on, and my goal is to have them resolved prior to the final release of FeedDemon 3.0.

PS: If you follow me on Twitter, please understand that I can’t provide tech support on Twitter (I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t work).  Our support forums are a much better place to report problems and ask questions!

Share Your NewsGator/FeedDemon Clippings with ReadBurner

About a year ago, I wrote about how link blogs are attention streams.  The premise behind that post was that while attention algorithms can uncover what people are paying attention to, the articles people are sharing provide an even better way of determining their attention.

As I mentioned in that post, seeing what other people are paying attention to has brought me a ton of relevant articles that I would otherwise have missed.  The folks at ReadBurner had a similar idea, and they built a great service which displays the most frequently shared content across the web.

In the past, ReadBurner has relied solely on Google Reader and Netvibes for its shared content.  That just changed.

NewsGator has partnered with ReadBurner, and as a result, it’s now dead simple to share your NewsGator clippings with ReadBurner.  This means that FeedDemon, NetNewsWire, NewsGator Inbox and NewsGator Online customers can easily share their clipped articles with ReadBurner.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. If you haven’t done so already, share one of your clippings folders as an RSS feed (this screencast explains how this is done in FeedDemon).
  2. Copy the URL of the shared clippings feed to the clipboard (in FeedDemon, you can do this by clicking the “Copy” link from the clippings properties).
  3. Browse to http://www.readburner.com/
  4. Go to the "Add Feed" option on the right hand side of the ReadBurner menu bar, then select “NewsGator Clippings” and enter the URL of your clipping feed.

Once you’ve done that, your clippings feed will be shared with ReadBurner.

Side note: Keep in mind that you can share any web page with FeedDemon – you’re not limited to sharing items from RSS feeds, but can instead share any article you find on the web.

NewsGator Pays Attention

NewsGator CTO Greg Reinacker writes:

"We’ve now implemented a persistent APML endpoint in our online platform. What this means is, if you’re using sync with NewsGator Online, there is a well-known URL that represents your APML attention data."

At first glance, this may strike you as something that only hard-core geeks would be interested in.  After all, it’s not as though tons of people are clamoring to get their attention data.  And by itself, your attention data doesn’t have much value since there’s not a helluva lot you can do with it yet.  But as more services support APML, the more valuable your attention data becomes. 

ReadWriteWeb claims that the keys to a killer web service are search, aggregation and conversation.  I’d add relevance to that list.  Relevance is key to bubbling up the stuff that’s important to you out of all the stuff you’re getting via search, aggregation and conversation.

Right now most services that provide relevance do so by learning over time.  They might, for example, notice that you often read articles about a specific topic, and then use that information to recommend new articles to you.  Or they might be able to recommend new "friends" to you based on the friends you already have. 

But you have to use a service long enough for it to learn about you.  Sites like Netflix and Amazon can’t recommend new stuff to you until they know about the stuff you’ve already bought.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to keep training all these web sites in the hopes that they’ll serve me better once they know more about me.  I’d rather have some sort of external profile I can give to these sites which tells them what I’m interested in.

That’s what APML is for.  Attention data via APML describes the things that are important to you, and once a service knows what’s important to you, it can do a better job surfacing relevant information without first having to spend so much time learning about you. 

Since we’re providing your attention data as a well-known URL, you can easily share it with other services.  Unfortunately, we’re still at the infancy stage here, so there aren’t many services that support APML yet.  My hope is that by being among the first to offer APML, we can convince more services of its value.