Archive for March, 2013

In search of an RSS Reader

March 23, 2013

Being an attorney, I try to keep up with the news. I focus on law, technology, politics, and local events. To accomplish this, I use an RSS Reader to follow a plethora of blogs and websites (including my local paper the News-Press). For those of you not familiar with the term, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it is a standard that can be used by websites to share links and information about their posts. The series of links to articles provided by RSS is often called a feed.  Many people and apps relied on Google Reader to manage and follow these feeds. However, Google has made the unfortunate decision to terminate Google Reader as explained in this blog post. This has lead to a blog and twitter campaign to #savegooglereader, including an online petition. Personally, I understand how Google thought Reader was underutilized because I, like I suspect many others, did not directly use the Google Reader website to access our feeds. Instead we used apps, often on mobile devices, which relied on Google Reader as a backend service to provide the feeds that the app would then manage/display on the mobile device. As a service, Google Reader kept track of new/read/unread messages and would enable the apps to sync this information across devices. So the demise of Google Reader, not only affects those people who directly utilized it to read thier feeds, but also all of the apps which relied upon it as a backend service to manage syncing.

Over the years, I have used a variety of RSS Readers on both the Android and iOS platforms. On Android, my preferred app was NewsRob, and on iOS it was originally MobileRss. Over time, the developers stopped updating MobileRss and it lost its ability to easy share articles to other services, such as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, and I had to find a new solution. I tried a number of the personalized magazine or curated apps, such as Pulse, Flipboard, Feedly, and Prismatic. But these apps only offered me the content they thought I should read based on their algorithms and did not allow me to directly read the feeds I selected, so I was dissatisfied and searched for an actual RSS feed reader. The one that best my criteria (more on that below) was Byline. Now with all the attention that RSS is getting, I decided to write this post about what I want in an RSS reader. I give credit to Feedly for being so active on Twitter in soliciting feedback about what users want and for developing a new backend service they call Normandy to replace the functionality of Google Reader.

I primarily use my iPad to read the news.  Next most often is my iPhone (yes I converted from Android). Lastly, I rely on actual print media, though I am doing my best to move to all digital sources. So for me the solution has to work well on iOS. I like seeing cross platform support, because I will re-evaluate this decision when it is time for my next technology refresh. Minor segue, for me iOS’s reliability makes up for any limitations in customizability. The below items are not necessarily in priority order.

First and foremost, I am not interested in a pretty magazine layout. I know that has been all the rage for the past two years but I skim through hundreds of articles a day, and need a text based interface to choose which articles to read. Looking at a “list” style view enables me to rapidly select only those articles I want to read. Once selected, I do want to see the articles along with any graphics or pictures the author has included. I also, want to be able to mark articles as “read,” which I do not choose to read. This essentially removes those articles from the feed and they won’t be displayed again in the app. This is a separate function from “liking” or giving a “thumbs up” to an article.

Second, I want the articles to be cached for both faster access and offline reading. The caching should take place in the background and not unduly slow the down being able to select and read articles while the caching is occurring. This is an area where Byline is lacking, when caching is occurring the app becomes almost unresponsive and you have to wait before you can read articles. I understand needing to get the web view for the whole article, as it is the advertising that provides the financial wherewithal to create the content. Based on this only the text in the RSS Feed would be cached and to get the rest would require a live connection.

Third, is the ability to share articles. I primarily share articles in two fashions. One is on a personal level to my friends and family via Facebook. The other are articles of professional interest and I share those simultaneously to Linkedin/Twitter (usually via Linkedin’s integration with Twitter).  When posting to Facebook, I would to be able to edit the title of the link and the summary of the info displayed (this is not as important as being able to easily share to Facebook, but it is my wish list after all). For the joint Linkedin/Twitter post, it is important to respect Twitter’s 140 character limit and use the shortened url as part of that count (which Linkedin native iOS app fails to do, it won’t let you post something over 140 characters from the app, even though when the url is shortened by Linkedin it will be under that limit). Additionally, it should be possible to share an article via email. I’d like to see support for Google Plus, even though currently I am not making much use of it.

Fourth, saving articles. I use both Pocket and Evernote and desire the ability to clip or save articles to either one as appropriate. I do not believe the app needs to have its own save for later functionality.

Fifth, I want to be able to review my articles by the feed they are sourced from. I like the idea of curated content, as a layer on top of my feeds. A feature I have not seen yet (I apologize if there is an app that does this and I’ve missed it) is one that combines the two types of functionality. The ideal app would present me a “feed” of personalized content that I could use to start my reading based upon my previous actual reading habits. I understand there is a challenge in just using reading articles as a method of determining topic preferences, because it is difficult to distinguish between marking as read and actually reading. But that would be the holy grail of personalization. Not to require a separate step of “liking” or giving a “thumbs up” to an article, but to automatically distinguish between articles I simply mark as read from the list view without reading, and those I actually read. However, I would be happy to use a liking method on articles I actually read to help generate the curated feed, if I did not have to “handle” the article twice. By this I mean that if an article was in the curated feed and in a subcribed feed, reading or marking read an article would mark the article as read in both places, regardless of the view the article is accessed from.

If you took the time to read all the way to end of this post I appreciate it and will certainly respond to any requests for additional information. I can be found on twitter @scotthertz.


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