Switch: blog reading and writing tools

Dec 30, 2006

I’m a RSS junkie and keep an eye on tons of feeds, both for work purposes and for staying in touch with people I just happen to know. So it’s important for me to have good reading tools. Similarly, I also maintain a number of personal and professional blogs. While all the blog softwares have web-based backends for posting, they all have different shortcomings, and I’ve started to look in client-side posting tools. So the conversion from Windows to OS X was interesting from this perspective.

Writing/posting

I start with posting because it’s easier. Simply put, there doesn’t seem to exist any good free software for this under OS X. The “reference experience” is Windows Live Writer from Microsoft. I’ve been bashing Microsoft from time to time, but WLW is a truly useful piece of free software. (Yea yea… free as a beer, not speech. Whatever.) Easy to install and run, with truly useful no-nonsense interface that produces clean HTML and works fine with Movabletype and Wordpress API-s. Especially useful is its Flickr plugin that lets me add pictures from my or anyone else’s Flickr account with a few clicks without copy-pasting anything.

On Mac, nothing like this exists. I know that there’s this Qumana thing that some people use. Its evaluation went very smoothly: it died on me and wouldn’t start up. Bye bye Qumana. Next!

Then there’s ecto. This worked on OS X. It supports many API-s and in some subtle ways has better features than WLW. For example it knows how to post the “body” and “extended entry” fields for MT (WLW has only one big content field which you need to split up in the backend later manually, if you want to use the “extended” field). But I didn’t like the interface and there was no way for me to easily insert Flickr pictures. Yea yea, I know there is some plugin that you can put in your browser to post from Flickr site or whatever, but it wasn’t easy to install and use. Anything more complicated than the WLW way doesn’t cut it, and WLW has set my expectations to a level that is very very hard to beat.

So… after Ecto trial expired, I didn’t find it to be worth my money. I keep using the web-based backends or WLW. On OS X, I’m very inclined to post more complicated posts using WLW running under Windows XP in Parallels. That’s a shame, OS X. You should do better.

Reading

I started reading blogs a few years ago with the Sage plugin for Firefox. I quickly outgrew it and switched to FeedDemon that, at the time, seemed like a truly useful piece of software. And it was.

With the OS X switch, I needed to keep reading on multiple computers (I like to use my home desktop when at home). So I also put FeedDemon on my home Windows machine, and I put NetNewsWire trial on OS X. In theory, FeedDemon and NNW are supposed to sync your feeds and read/unread posts through your Newsgator Online account. And it sorta kinda works.

“Sorta kinda works” is the worst enemy of “just works”. NNW and FD synced my feeds most of time, but they didn’t sometimes. Things that you marked read in one client sometimes still appeared unread in the other and so forth. In other words, you couldn’t really trust the software to perform up to your expectations. And it started to suck.

I wasn’t also a big fan of the NNW interface, it was a bit worse than FD and didn’t let me do things as efficiently.

So I started thinking of using a browser-based solution. If I think of it, the only true architectural advantage of a client-based feedreader over a web-based one is that you can read things offline. I thought about how often I actually needed to do this, and concluded “not nearly as often as I initially imagined”. In all other aspects, like the UI and speed and overall look-n-feel, these days web- and client-based applications are competing on equal levels, neither needs a handicap over the other.

I had tried out Google Reader with their first alpha a long time ago, and at the time it sucked very badly. I can’t really remember what exactly was wrong with it, but I just walked away since it wasn’t working or any good. So now when I tried the latest version of Google Reader, I was absolutely blown away. I immediately switched to it and ditched all the clients and haven’t looked back ever since. So I’m sorry, Nick, you and Newsgator can keep the money I gave you for FeedDemon, but I don’t think I’ll look at your products again anytime soon, since Google Reader kicks your ass, and here’s why.

Google Reader

Google Reader is simply the best feed reading and managing experience that I’ve ever seen so far, and this is why I keep using it now. It’s fast and responsive as hell. It lets me very very easily switch between different modes, like reading one feed vs the whole category; reading only unread vs all items; reading things in a “list” vs “expanded” view. With some feeds, I want to quickly scan hundreds of titles and decide if anything there is good. With others, I want to scroll through all the entries, perhaps containing pictures. With yet others, I want to read everything in detail. Google Reader lets me do all that on both OS X and Windows in a no-nonsense way and doesn’t force me to learn different things on different platforms. It keeps things in perfect sync between all my computers.

I’d put it this way, similarly to Scoble, that “Google Reader makes reading blogs and RSS feeds fun again.” It used to be a chore that took ages. Now it’s fun and I can do it literally five to ten times faster than before. Thus, I also see the relevant stuff more quickly. It used to be that I had to put a chunk of time aside to read feeds, and could do it maybe only a few times a week and missed a lot of the timely conversations. With Reader, I can do it ten times a day if I want, and am on top of things again.

WIth client-based solutions, you often want to “jump to the browser” to “do more” with the feeds, like maybe share or blog or bookmark them, since the client doesn’t give you the full browser experience with all the plugins. So you need to jump between the client and browser window. With a browser-based window you’re, well, already in the browser all the time, so you don’t need to jump anywhere.

Google Reader also lets me very easily run a link blog. Mine is here. I’ll also put it in the sidebar one day. And/or perhaps construct a mega-feed that combines my blog, del.icio.us, flickr and Google Reader shared items feeds.

Now… you might argue that there are some privacy implications here with giving your blog reading data to Google. Typically I would agree, I think that people blindly trust too many web- and server-based solutions and they can turn out to be evil like people abusing your data. But I don’t think there’s any such case for feedreaders. To start off, blogs and feeds are public by nature. (There are very very few internal protected feeds that I track, but I don’t do that with Google Reader.) So all I’m giving Google is my “attention data” – the list of feeds that I read, and how exactly I do that. It would be very easy to integrate features in the web UI that track your reading habits (do you use list- or text-based view? Do you use mouse or keyboard? How long do you spend reading which feed and post?).

It was suggested that Google Reader and its shared items may one day overtake Digg. That’s true, but it’s just one tiny example in the huge realm of opportunity that Google has with this. I’m happy to surrender this data to Google with the hope that the smart people there will figure out how to use it to improve my browsing and blog-reading experience, if you will, with “attention management” features or whatever. In the realm of “attention management” there has been a lot of academic talk but very little practical action that would be useful to me as a person. Perhaps Google and its reader will step in that direction.</p> <p>Or if not, the Google Reader is a great tool as it is.

True, there are some tiny cosmetic grievances with Google Reader. Like it doesn’t display feed favicons. And sometimes it has temporary trouble adding some new feeds. Maybe some other really really tiny stuff. But while the client apps spend a lot of time in getting such details right (like being anally correct about feed favicons), they don’t even get to close to Reader with the core reading experience.