Last Post

In two days, Google Reader will fetch its last feed and, with little ceremony, fade into memory. Having used Reader almost every day for the last five and half years, it will be a sad day for me. But, in the midst of this sadness, there is joy; for, much as I said three and a half months ago, the death of Reader has opened up the market for an explosion of development in RSS clients. Since Google’s announcement, Feedly has been iterating like crazy, Digg launched their own reader, rumours have been swirling that Facebook is going to release a reader any day now, and even AOL has launched a reader. AOL! And after working on it for a year an a half, Francis Cleary has finally launched Hive.

Frankly, the hints of a Facebook reader don’t interest me terribly much, as a Reader at Facebook will live under the same Damoclean Sword that Reader did at Google; its host company, so large, and with so many diverse interests, will hesitate little in cutting a service that they feel is under-performing. Facebook, of course, has never shown any qualms when it comes to cutting services or redesigning their interface. By contrast, Digg and AOL are both media companies. News-reading is actually a core component of their business. Feedly and Hive, as companies that are focused *only* on running an RSS reader, are even safer bets in that regard.

Feedly, in particular, excites me. In the last three months they have added countless features, including one that addresses one of the issues that kept them from being my top pick last time: you can now use Feedly without installing a browser extension. Additionally, the ability to share articles directly with other Feedly users is coming soon. They also have the best mobile application out there, and recently launched their API, which works with a number of desktop and mobile apps. And they have demonstrated repeatedly that they are responsive to customer feedback, and working hard to improve their product. It is for these reasons that Feedly is now my number 1 choice of Google Reader replacement.

2nd place is a tie between Digg Reader and The Old Reader. The Old Reader is more feature-complete, offering essentially everything Google Reader does/did, including the internal sharing that Google axed 20 months ago. Digg Reader lacks certain features – most notably a “mark as unread” button, though this is apparently coming soon. Digg currently only has an iOS app, The Old Reader lacks mobile apps entirely, though both offer mobile websites, and Digg are apparently working on a mobile app for Android. The Old Reader has also launched a mobile API that will allow other mobile RSS readers to connect to it, though that is apparently currently limited to Feedler on iOS.

3rd place is also a tie, this time between AOL and Hive. Both are currently in invite-only beta at the moment, so I would recommend that you sign up for them, but it’s doubtful that you’ll get an invite before the 1st of July. I know it seems crazy that I would recommend a reader built by AOL, which is practically a byword for technical obsolescence, but it looks pretty good, and they are apparently working on building all the features that I think are important (in particular, mobile apps and internal sharing) and it has the benefit of AOL’s significant resources behind it. It is a bit sad that Hive only makes 3rd place on this list; I’ve not used it much, but it is a very nice reader; however it is also the work of just one man. Francis has done a very good job, and Hive has a good feature-set, but it seems doubtful to me that it will grow and improve at the same rate as the other, better-resourced readers. In particular, I don’t see mobile apps happening for it any time soon.

My recommendations then, are as follows:

  • Sign up for *at least* Feedly, Digg and The Old Reader, and use their import functions to import your Google Reader accounts automatically. This is a very quick and easy process, and will ensure that your feeds are functioning on several good readers that you can try out.
  • Download your Google Reader data through Google Takeout, in case you end up picking a different Reader later on.
  • Work your way through the five stages as quickly as possible

 

One more thing…

One of the nifty features of Google Reader was that it actually cached all the posts from the feeds you were subscribed to. Presumably they did this for bandwidth and speed reasons, but the useful thing about it is that it means that all the posts of all the blogs you’ve read, even ones which have subsequently shut down, should still be in your Reader account. Sadly, when Reader shuts down, all those posts will be lost, like tears in the rain. However, I wrote an AppleScript that will work its way through those posts, printing them all to PDF. So, if there’s a blog you followed that no longer exists, this script will allow you to save a copy of it.

How it works: you’ll need a Mac, and Chrome

  1. Open Chrome, go Google Reader, and open the feed you wish to save. (This will work with any feed, or folder, or your Starred items)
  2. Make sure the feed is set to Expanded View
    Expanded View
  3. Click on the first item in the feed.
  4. Hit Command+P to open the print dialogue
  5. In the Destination field, make sure Save as PDF is selected
  6. Click Save and save the PDF to wherever you want your PDFs to go. (This sets the save location that is then used for all subsequent prints)
  7. Open the script.
  8. Change the saveName variable to whatever you want your PDFs to be called – just make sure you don’t delete the quotation marks around it.
  9. On the line repeat until postCounter = 200, set the number to however many posts you think there may be.
  10. Click Run.

At this point, you should probably go get a cup of tea or something. It takes about 4.6 seconds per post, so if you have a lot of them to save, it’ll take quite a while. Additionally, you can’t use your computer while it’s running. Note that you *can* try to speed it up a little by making the defaultDelay variable smaller, but if the delays are too small, it will end up stuffing up – the script basically has to wait for Chrome to do each step, and unfortunately has no way of knowing if Chrome has done it, so it just has to wait. However, I wouldn’t recommend messing with this variable; if the delays are too small, you’ll find that it ends up skipping posts or naming them improperly.

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Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 5:44 am  Comments (1)  

Mark all as read.

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.

Image

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

The Old Reader

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.

Image

  • 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

NewsBlur

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.

Feedly

Feedly

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.

Published in: on March 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm  Comments (5)  

Hate the new Google Reader? Blame Steve Jobs.

Yesterday, Google started rolling out the new version of Google Reader, which strips the social functionality from it, pushing users towards sharing things over Google+.

I, like many users of Google Reader, am quite disappointed by this change. Google+ is not equal to Google Reader as far as sharing is concerned. For one thing, the interface is entirely different: in the old Reader, one shared things by clicking the “share” button, and that was it.

To share something in the new Reader, you have to click the +1 button, then wait for the popup to appear, select the circle or circles you wish to share it with, then click share. It’s turned a 1 step process into a 4 step process. This is not progress.

(Unnecessary clicking is actually becoming, I think, an endemic problem in Google products – take Google Docs, for instance; to rename a file you have to select the file with the checkbox, click the “more” button, click “rename”, rename the file, and then click OK – alternately, you can open the document, click on the title, type the new name in the box that opens and click OK – in either case, it’s a four-step process for something that should be much simpler. What they need to do is hire Palm’s tap counter – see 11:25 in this video. There’s also a good criticism of the new Reader design from one of the former product managers for Reader. But I digress.)

Beyond the far more tedious process of actually sharing things is the fact that Google+ is not the optimum space for sharing items from your RSS feed. Why? Well, in part it’s due to white space. In Reader, all your items are fairly compactly arranged one after the other for easy and rapid consumption. Google+, on the other hand, wastes space like it’s going out of style. Then there’s the truncation issue: when you shared something on the old Google Reader, if it was from an untruncated RSS feed, the entire article was shared to your friends, so they could read it without having to click through to another site and wait for it to load. On Google+, on the other hand, everything is truncated – images are thumbnailed and all but the shortest of posts are cut-off, requiring readers to click through to read. This is a regression. Good products should make things effortless.

More importantly, however, there’s the fact that the way one shares posts on Google+ is not the same as one does on Reader. One of the things I share a lot of on Google Reader is Texts From Last Night. Many of my friends have commented on how they appreciate having this curated feed, saving them the time of having to dig through the site themselves. Now, this works fine on Google Reader, because it’s built to handle volume – if I share ten items at once, it’s not a big deal. You expect, hundreds, if not thousands of items waiting for you when you log in, in fact. (You can even buy a 1000+ unread items shirt, so common is the phenomenon amongst Reader users). But if I share ten items all at once on Google+, that, frankly, is spam. Overall, I’d say I share somewhere between 15-25 items on Reader a day. Can you imagine having everyone on your Google+ feed sharing that many items?

The problem is that whilst Google seems to have grasped the idea that one has different social circles, they have completely overlooked the fact that there are different social situations. To make an analogy; Google+ is like a house party, whereas Google Reader was like a book club. Now, you can corner a bunch of people at a house party and try and make them discuss Dostoyevsky, but that’s really not what a house party is for – a house party is where you catch up with friends, talk about stupid crap, and check out their cute friends. Similarly, you can show up to a book club with a whole bunch of booze and try and convince everyone to start making out, but that’s not really why they’re there, and they’re probably all just going to get annoyed at you.

So, where does Steve Jobs come into this? Well, if you watch the overtime video of the 60 Minutes interview with Jobs’ biographer, at 1:05 he mentions that when Larry Page was about to become CEO of Google, he approached Jobs and asked him for some advice. Jobs, despite being pretty sour on Google, obliged, and told him this: “Focus. Don’t be like Microsoft, doing products all over the map: figure out what you do best, and keep it focused.

Good advice. And what happened as soon as Larry Page took over Google? He announces that they’re streamlining – “Greater focus has also been another big feature for me this quarter–more wood behind fewer arrows“. So services get shut down – Buzz, Labs, Aardvark… and, of course, Reader’s social functionality gets merged with Google+. Page wants Google to focus, and so they are.

But there are a few problems with this. In that same interview, the biographer mentions that Jobs met with Bill Gates near the end, and Gates told him “You proved that your model works.” – but what he later added to the biographer was that “it only works if you’ve got a Steve Jobs.

Focus is good, and focus is important, but you shouldn’t try to be Steve Jobs unless you’re Steve Jobs.

The other problem is that Page only seems to have heeded the first part of the message, and completely missed the second, far more important part: figure out what you do best, and keep it focused. What does Google do best? Social? Cloning other services? They tried (and failed) that with Buzz, and despite managing a slightly better showing on Google+, I suspect it’s going to go the same way. (In fact, I cant help but feel like this move to force Reader users to share on Google+ is just a way to drive more activity to the service because it’s not growing like they want it to). Google+ is, for the most part, just another Facebook. And people don’t need, or particularly want, another Facebook. I’m all for competition in the marketplace, but this is not Google doing what Google does best.

So what is that which Google does best? Well, we already know that; it’s been right in front of us the entire time: Google Reader. As my friend James commented – Google have, in fact, just killed the only successful social network they’ve ever made. It may never have had the same popularity as Facebook or Twitter, but you only have to look at the multiple protests that people are holding to see that the people that did use it loved it. That’s the kind of user loyalty companies should kill for. After all, despite the enormous amount of noise people make every time Facebook updates their interface, when has anyone actually staged a protest in front of their offices? Google, despite neglecting Reader for over 2 years, making basically no updates or improvements, nonetheless still managed to completely dominate the market for RSS readers; as we users of Google Reader are now discovering, looking around to realise, in surprise, that there is no comparable alternative product. So much so that some users are now rebuilding it from the ground up.

That’s an insane level of loyalty. That’s a sticking-with-Apple-in-the-late-90’s level of loyalty. And if Larry Page really wants to be Steve Jobs, that’s what he should be cultivating, and then he should figure out a way to sell it to the other 99% of the population. Because that’s what Steve would do.

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm  Comments (3)  
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Dispatches from the wilds of Poetania – A Letter to America from 92,897 Australians

Dear America,
can you just, like, chill out?
Seriously, you used to be cool, 
back in the days of Empire, 
you were like our older brother 
that left home at fifteen, 
joined a rock band, 
and sent us post-cards from Vietnam 
(before it was a popular tourist destination) 
but now you’re just a middle-aged economist 
who cares way too much about petrol prices 
and not enough about Rock ‘n Roll 
and partying.

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 11:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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Dispatches from the wilds of Poetania – Spud

Fine. I’ll write a poem that’s not erotic.
I’ll write about potatoes,
plain old potatoes,
rough, dirty potatoes,
hard, dirty potatoes,
dirty, dirty potatoes,
with their smooth curves
that so perfectly fill the hand,
so firm,
so round,
so…

…so hungry.

Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm  Comments (2)  
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Dispatches from the wilds of Poetania – Alloy

What are the engineering difficulties presented,
in the formation of a soul?
Hydraulics, obviously, for the heart.
Electrical & computational for the mind.
But how do you preference materials
for the intangible?
Which alloys work best?
Titanium, for strength?
Aluminium, for lightness?
Should we insulate it with asbestos?
or case-harden it with bursts of unforgiving heat?
Should we ballast it with lead,
or shield it from cosmic rays?
If we ground it against lightning strikes,
will that kill its inspiration?
What is the appropriate wear tolerance?
75 years?
1,000,000 footsteps?
5 heartbreaks?
10,000 handshakes?
16 shattered dreams?
a dozen great friendships?
What is the acceptable rate of failure?
And should it fail elegantly,
or spectacularly?
Should it be water-proof?
Impact-resistant?
Recyclable?
Carbon-neutral?
Should we be glad such things are not designed by engineers,
or terrified that we are not all born with BEs in our hands?
Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 2:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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