Today is the Ides of March, so perhaps it is fitting that I come here not to praise Reader, but to bury it.
Yesterday, Google announced that it was killing Reader. I found out, of course, from a Techcrunch post that I read in Reader on my phone. Google did not even grant Reader the dignity of an obituary of its own, but instead dismissed it in a single paragraph; just another piece of garbage being thrown out. And it would be easy to feel despair at this; it is, in the words of Ramey Moore, “…like your favorite bar and your favorite restaurant and your favorite newspaper all closing on the same day…” (he actually said this when Google killed the sharing features over a year ago, but it remains true today.) Yes, you could feel sad about this. I certainly did when I first heard. If you’re reading this post right now, I’d say there’s pretty good odds you do.
But you shouldn’t.
The fact is, this is a good thing. Reader was on the receiving end of nothing but neglect from Google for years. Feel free to read this 5,800 word autopsy on the subject, from which the above quote was gleaned. Or you can read my own post on the subject.
Techcrunch, naturally, took advantage of the opportunity to once more trot out their usual crap that RSS is dead. Ignore them. Techcrunch delights in trolling its readership for pageviews and “engagement” (said engagement comprising primarily of Techcrunch’s users abusing them in a wide variety of colourful language).
But RSS is not dead. In fact, this may be the best thing to have happened to RSS for years. Google did nothing with Reader. Reader sat, forgotten and neglected, as its parent focused on “bigger fish”. Google either didn’t see the potential in Reader, or it didn’t know how to take advantage of it. So Reader languished. When was the last time we saw a sincerely new feature added to Reader? (Not counting the “feature” of having all the sharing functionality gutted in favour of Google+). Did you know that reader has a Labs section? Look in the settings, under “Experiments”. There’s an entirety of one experiment.
Reader has been comatose for years. Dragged along on life-support, but nothing more. But at the same time, its complete dominance of the RSS Reader market means that no real competition rose up. It was a stagnant monopoly.
But not now. Sic semper tyrannis. The king is dead.
And it turns out, in the 16 months since Google first broke our hearts, the internet has been busy.
When Google first killed Reader’s social features, I desperately sought an alternative – and it was then that I learnt the terrible price of Google’s monopoly. None existed. There were basic RSS readers – but nothing that matched Reader. So, I wearily accepted that this was the way of things, and made do with what I had, while hoping that Francis Cleary, who had announced his intention to build a Reader clone with the features Google killed, would get it done soon. (Over a year later, and he’s on his third major rewrite)
But in the meantime, going almost unnoticed, others have built their own replacements. These are startups eager to build great products, and they’ve just been told that the entire market they’ve been chasing after has just opened up; all of a sudden we’re off to the races.
I’m going to ignore all the suggestions that you replace Reader with Flipboard or Twitter. If that were what you wanted, you’d already be using it, not reading this. So, here, then, are my picks, in order of preference:
The Old Reader is my top pick as a replacement for Google Reader. It’s got an attractive design that (surprise surprise) looks a lot like Google Reader used to, and (for the most part) doesn’t waste space. It also has the internal-sharing that Google Reader used to have, and their developers are energetic and working hard on new features; they even have a feedback forum where you can request (and vote on) new features and they actually talk to their users.
Now, the downsides:
- It’s a little sluggish to use, but considering their userbase has tripled overnight from 10,000 to 30,000, I’m inclined to give them a pass on this one for the moment.
- Currently they don’t have mobile apps, but they’ve announced an API, so soon enough you should be able to hook it into mobile RSS apps, and possibly even Reeder/Feedburner and other desktop RSS apps. And in the meantime, their mobile site is quite serviceable.
- They currently don’t have a revenue stream, but they’re considering a freemium model.
- They currently don’t have a sharing bookmarklet, but it’s something that will be coming eventually.
Newsblur, similarly, offers all the features Reader used to have – sharing, commenting, the works. These are unlocked for a $1/month fee, which seems pretty reasonable. NewsBlur does have Android and iOS apps. It also has a Sharing Bookmarklet (like the old “Note in Reader” bookmarklet for sharing content from sites you’re not subscribed to). And it’s built on open-source code, so if it were to ever shut down, you could roll your own NewsBlur server and just keep on truckin’.
However, there are two main downsides to NewsBlur:
- They’re pretty unstable at the moment. This isn’t such a sin, as most of the Reader replacements are struggling under the sudden influx of refugees from Google. So we can give them a pass on that, for the moment.
- The second issue, however, is not so easily forgiven; NewsBlur is ugly. Its has an awkward 3-pane interface that doesn’t work very well in any configuration, and it wastes far too much space, which, particularly on my 11″ Macbook Air, is an unforgivable sin.
Third, then, is Feedly, which would be my second choice, or perhaps even my first, if it weren’t for a few things:
- No sharing features. (You can share to Facebook and what have you, but there’s no sharing to other Feedly users)
- It requires a browser extension. That’s not such a problem at home, but if you work for a company with locked-down IT, then you’re out of luck.
It’s a pity, because these two are dealbreakers for me, and Feedly is really, really pretty. I think, out of all the readers, I may like its design the most.
There are, of course, dozens of other options; mostly in the form of desktop apps, but if you want what Google Reader used to be, these three are the ones to look at. My advice: sign up for each of them, import your feeds, and try them out. We have time. And these sites have three and a half months to fight it out to see who can produce the best RSS reader for us. Hell, even Digg just threw its hat in the ring. Remember Digg? It might not have sunk in yet, but this is an exciting time to be an RSS user.
So breathe deep, relax, and enjoy the ride. Things only get better from here.