Posts From March 2010

Wow. Now there’s a quote with some great perspective.

Just wanted to point out that I have really been enjoying Dan Benjamin’s relatively new podcast, The Pipeline. In less then two months Dan has already hosted some great conversations with some great folks like Shaun Inman and Jason Fried. And I especially loved the latest episode with Jason Kottke.

A great update to Reeder. Version 2 is the best app available for reading feeds on an iPhone.

Mr. Hines and the Unpublished, Unfinished Interviews

A few months ago I was asked by Ian Hines to conduct an interview via email. Unfortunately that interview was never completed. I am a slow correspondent, and just recently Ian had to end the interview early because he was taking his weblog down for professional reasons.

Ian was a fantastic interviewer, and I was not the only person he was chatting with. He also conducted interviews with Pat Dryburgh, Kyle Baxter, and Jorge Qunteros. All of which had interviews that were never published to Ian’s now-dissolved weblog. So instead, these three gentlemen posted their interviews with Ian onto their own sites. And so I’ve been provoked to do the same.

The Interview

  • Ian Hines: Let’s start at the beginning: How long have you kept a weblog, and what made you get started in the first place?
  • Shawn Blanc: I remember writing that first post as if I published it yesterday. I so clearly recall the first time I felt the novelty of writing something combined with the adrenaline rush of publishing it. Even now, four years later, I still feel that same novelty and that same rush every time I publish a new article.

    That first post was written on January 27, 2006 during a trip to Colorado. I wrote it on my 12-inch PowerBook G4 and published it on Blogspot.

    (Back then, all my blogging friends used Blogspot. Randy had been publishing his weblog for like 6 years already, and Josh was going on three or four I think. About six months later I migrated it to WordPress (version 2.1 I think) because the WordPress WYSISYG editor seemed way better than Blogspot’s.)

    I have always considered myself a writer, despite the fact that until I began publishing a weblog in 2006 I had barely done any writing. (Funny how it works like that.) So perhaps that is why I still recall that first post so much — because I was finally writing.

    Publishing a weblog has been the best thing I could have done for my writing. It is a format that really works for me: I enjoy it, I’m challenged by it, inspired by it, and frustrated by it. I love it and I hate it. Some days I cannot wait to sit down at my keyboard, while other days I consider quitting altogether and spending all that new free time building furniture. And but so the blend of emotion is sort of my proof that I ought to keep growing and writing.

    But if I ever did quit, I know I would miss it. Blogging in its purest form — when I’m not being influenced by stats, etc. — is really enjoyable to me.

  • Ian: It’s interesting that you mention the tension between loving blogging and thinking of quitting; I gather that that is a common feeling among dedicated bloggers. I’m curious how your blogging influences your professional and personal life, and visa versa? Would you say that you continue blogging in spite of it’s impact on your offline life, or because of it, or… what?
  • Shawn: Publishing my website influences my home and work life much the same as any other pursuit would. Growing up and all through school I studied Martial Arts, and it effected my whole life. I trained five days a week, and everything I did or thought revolved around Tae Kwon Do. My friends were in Martial Arts, we only ever watched fight movies, I read books about weapons and Japan and ninjas (seriously), and I made sure to buy clothes that would be most appropriate in case I were to get in a fight in a back alley.

    After that it was playing the drums. From my senior year of high school, on through college, and for my first five years on staff with the International House of Prayer I was a full-time drummer. My best friends were my bandmates, I visited drum websites, watched drum-solo videos on YouTube, spent all my money on drum gear, and listened to a lot of Carter Beauford.

    It was in 2007 when I began transitioning out of my life as a drummer and into a life of graphic design, writing, and much higher interest in technology and software.

    Obviously it’s not as cut and dry as I’ve made it sound — I am still a Black Belt, I still own my drum kit, and I was writing and designing and being nerdy before 2007. But my point here is that there are seasons of my life which can clearly be earmarked by what hobby or pursuit I most had going at the time, and usually for a decade or more. Each of these pursuits had a profound impact on my daily life.

    So to answer your question, I write both in spite of, and because of, the impact on my offline life. I mean, of course it impacts my offline life. If it didn’t it would mean I wasn’t putting enough of myself into it. If I didn’t want my online writing to have an effect on my offline life then I suppose I ought to go find something which I would.

    The reason I sometimes consider quitting is probably just like anyone else who considers quitting something they do. There is always that feeling of the grass being greener on the other side. Will I be publishing my site 10 years from now? I don’t know. But I do know that for this season of life I have the time and the energy to write and I want to make the most of it so that when I look back it won’t be to see time wasted fiddling around on the internet.

  • Ian: Well said. But how about we flip it around: how does your offline life influence your writing?

    Back in early February you published a piece about titled “A Job Should Also Be an Education” in which you said:

    My uncertainties, struggles, and discoveries as the director of a marketing and creative team are something I’d very much like to talk about more here on shawnblanc.net, but I honestly don’t know where to begin.

    I started to briefly in “Marketing Shoes” and in my responses to Cameron Moll’s questions on leading an in-house design team. And posting my 1:1 form was another attempt at it.

    But talking about management, leadership, marketing strategy, and creative solutions from a corporate-feeling, non-profit organization’s standpoint is something I don’t feel very smart in. (And I generally prefer to only talk about things which I feel very smart in.)

    I, for one, would love to hear more about your work at the International House of Prayer, your hobbies, etc., but that doesn’t seem like something you’re inclined to focus on at SBnet.

    I guess what I’m really asking is: how do you decide what to — and what not to — write about?

  • Shawn: Well, I primarily decide what not to write about by wimping out — sometimes before I even get started. Or sometimes mid-way through.

    I think to myself: “Self, nobody cares about this crap. It’s not worth your time to write it, and it’s certainly not worth anyone else’s time to read. You and they both have something better to do.” Perhaps I’m being hard on myself at those times, or perhaps it truly is the voice of reason. We may never know.

    How do I decide what to write? No clue. I just write it I guess. There is no content strategy or research plan. I just write whenever I have a clear thought that I’d like to communicate. If I get stuck during the process of working out that thought then I’ll save it as a draft in MarsEdit and re-visit it later. More often than not I do come back to that post, finalize it, and publish it.

    And actually, I am inclined to talk more about my work on my weblog. Although that inclination has yet to translate into actual posts. As of this writing I have a handful of draft articles started which are not related to Apple or technology at all — they’re about marketing, the creative workflow, and management. Hopefully one or more of them will get finished and published soon and will pave the way for more of the like to follow.

  • Ian: Hmm… That leads me to an interesting thought: roughly how many draft articles do you have in MarsEdit right now? I tend never to have more than a few at a time, mostly because I find that when I get an idea it gnaws at me until I publish it.
  • Shawn: Roughly 30. The oldest dates back to February 2008. Some of the drafts are only one or two sentences, and are simply the start of a thought. Others are hundreds of words yet still incomplete, and a few are would-be links.
  • Ian: Do you find that — at least in your personal opinion — you write better when the idea pours out of you or when you take more time to write it in drafts?
  • Shawn: I guess it depends on the definition of writing better. If I have an idea that just pours out then yes, the initial foundation for what I’m writing is certainly much stronger than an idea I’m unclear on and trying to winkle through. But a piece that I were to write quickly and then publish would not nearly be as well written as one I took the time to write, edit, re-write, and then edit some more.

    In my opinion, my strongest articles are ones which I spend a significant amount of time on (sometimes several weeks) before publishing. Some of those articles started as an idea that just “poured out”, but some of them didn’t.

  • Ian: Makes sense. I’ve never really been much for drafts in any context; even major academic papers are usually just written in one go-through. I tend to edit as I go (for better or for worse).
  • Shawn: Yeah, I tend to edit as I go too. And I hate that I do that. It slows me down and I don’t think it leads to a better first draft.

    When I edit as I go I have too much focus on writing well and not just writing. That’s Natalie Goldberg’s big thing in her book Writing Down the Bones — she’s always saying to just write. Write. Write!

    The trouble with editing as I go is that I lose track of where I’m going because I focus too much on where I’ve been. Even now, as I’m typing this answer at this moment I’m editing it as I go. (!!) For me, it’s a habit I want to kick but it’s easier written than done.

  • Ian: You are, I’d wager, best known for your glowing and fantastically spot-on app reviews. In fact I feel like I’ve seen you refer to yourself as a software evangelist. How did you come to start writing those?
  • Shawn: Thanks for the kind words, though I can’t ever remember referring to myself as a “software evangelist”. I certainly do like the stuff though.

    How exactly I fell into writing those winded reviews I’m not really sure. Though I do know it all started with my review of NetNewsWire. I wanted to write something of length that had a storyline, yet was chock-full of nerdy content. A review of an app that I love seemed like the perfect solution. And it was.

    For me, writing a software review isn’t so much about giving the ins and outs of an application. It’s about telling a story and sharing a point of view from my eyes and then weaving the piece of software into that storyline.

For those that create Symlinks like it’s their job yet are still not Symlink savvy, here is an OS X utility app which, once installed, gives you right-click access to create a Symlink of the currently selected item.

As John Gruber pointed out last week, you can move your Yojimbo database into your Dropbox folder for real-time backup if you use a Symlink. For those who aren’t Symlink savvy, here is an Automator workflow that will take whatever folder you pick, create a symlink for it, and save it in a new location of your choosing.

This is commonly done to keep apps like Yojimbo or Things in sync across multiple computers. But I only use one computer so I don’t need to sync. However, I very much like the fact that now my Yojimbo database and MarsEdit drafts are backed up at all times, not just nightly.

The screenshots look great, but really, I love posts like this because Marco is writing about his development process.

Adam Schwabe writing about Gowalla (and Foursquare) in his 2010 SXSW highlights:

Neither application had been particularly useful for me at home here in Toronto up until SXSW, but that changed in Austin where they were great in tracking down friends and getting a sense for what was worth checking out at the conference and beyond. This worked only because I was a part of a very similar set of users with aligned goals, motivations and contexts for using the apps. I’m not so sure the usefulness of Foursquare/Gowalla will extend beyond SXSW unless you live in an urban area with a wired population; Like all social media, they won’t take off until your friends are on board.

Includes state persistence, item caching, and higher text contrast. PTL.

The whole demo is with the iPhone using EDGE, and it’s fast. The app was submitted a few hours ago and Opera has a countup to when/if Apple lets the new browser into the App Store.

As Chris Forseman said about a month ago on Ars Technica, the reason Opera is so quick on EDGE compared to Mobile Safari is because “It sends URL requests to a proxy server run by Opera, which renders a page into an image that is sent to the phone for display. This method typically offers much faster browsing than downloading an entire page and all its resources and rendering it on most underpowered mobiles, and is especially nice for devices limited to EDGE or slower connections.”

“If it was, you’d walk into a library and die. The first time you connected to the Web, you’d blow up, and merely browsing a newspaper would make you a nervous wreck.”

Jeffrey Zeldman:

You just feel, when you’re around people developing the best new web software, that something new is happening, and that many strands are coming together.

I signed up for Gowalla just a few days ago, and though the usefulness of it beyond a fun social network is a bit lost on me, the potential it has is certainly obvious. (Perhaps part of Gowalla’s usefulness being lost on me has to do with the fact that I only have a handful of friends with iPhones, and of them, only a couple were nerdy enough to sign up for it.)

Screenshots of good-looking Mac and iPhone apps. What a peculiar niche of folks we are that we love this sort of stuff. (Via DF.)

“Note: This Chart Designates Operations and Not Authorities”

Leo Babauta’s response to my post from earlier today on attention and trust as it relates to advertising.

In short, Leo’s point is that even if a publisher fully stands behind a company which is placing an ad, it is still a paid recommendation. And thus there is no such thing as 100% pure, trust-based advertising. His suggested solution is for the creator to sell their own stuff instead of someone else’s. Perhaps you sell the very thing you create, or perhaps you sell something else on the side to subsidize your time so you can continue creating.

In a pure and ideal model Leo is right. It would be great if every artist or writer were able to successfully sell what they create to those who are interested in it. But examples where this works out well for the artist rare — too many folks can’t afford to pay for your content with money.

If each of my favorite weblogs went behind a firewall and required a paid subscription to their content I could not financially afford to keep reading each of them (and I only subscribe to 25 or so sites). Instead of paying with my wallet I am willing to pay with my attention.

Attention, Trust, and Advertising

John Gruber, in his response to Jason Snell’s article regarding full-content RSS feeds, which was a response to Merlin Mann’s frustration with non-full-content RSS feeds:

If you’ve got a model where revenue is tied only to web page views, switching to full-content RSS feeds will hurt, at least in the short term. The problem, I say, isn’t with full-content RSS feeds, but rather with a business model that hinges solely on web page views. The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers. Web page views are a terribly inaccurate, if not outright misleading, metric for attention. Subscribers to a full-content RSS feed are among the readers paying the most attention, but generate among the least web page views.

A reader asking for a full-content RSS feed is a reader who wants to pay more attention to what you publish. There have to be ways to thrive financially from that.

John’s 100% right: “The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers.”

But it doesn’t stop there. If attention is the resource, trust is what makes that resource valuable. Because trust turns attention into permission.

Seth Godin:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

The most effective ads are the ones placed within a permission-based content model, because it’s a model built on trust. One friend recommending something to another friend is worth its weight in marketing gold.

Here’s an interesting side note: In general, the months which generate the highest percentage of click-through rates for the Fusion Ads displayed on shawnblanc.net are not the months with the highest page views. Rather they are the months in which I write the most.

If, during a month, the bulk of this site’s traffic comes from external links to a popular article I wrote, click-through percentages are lower for that month. If the bulk of the traffic comes from regular readers visiting the site to read then click-through percentages are higher.

In short: Attention alone does not make the ads more effective. (Even though during those months with higher page views I had the attention of more people unacquainted visitors don’t click on the Fusion Network ads nearly as much as regular readers do.)

Attention alone does not create the most valuable opportunity for an advertiser. Interruption marketing is also based on attention, but it’s forced attention rather than volunteered. (When was the last time you bought something from a door-to-door salesman or a telemarketer?) If you, as a reader, don’t trust me, or John, or Macworld, or The Atlantic, or whomever, then you won’t give us your attention. And you certainly won’t give us permission to place ads in front of you so we can continue writing and still afford put food on our tables.

John’s RSS sponsorship model is not a new idea. Websites have been trying to use their RSS feed to monetize their site for nearly a decade. But much of it is based on the same idea that “impressions equal value”. Impressions do not equal value, impact does. And impact comes through trust. While Digg and Slashdot can generate page views, only the publisher can generate trust.

A beautiful and curious, 5-minute video shot with a tilt-shift camera documenting a day in New York City. Really makes NYC look gorgeous. (Via Phil Coffman.)

Purposeful Mentorship

Intentional or not, in your life are four different areas of mentorship.

  1. Those you learn from (input)
  2. And those who you teach (output)
  3. Those you get along with (feedback)
  4. And those who you don’t (challenge)

It’s not uncommon to complain that we have nobody to teach us, be lethargic about teaching others, run from relationships that are challenging, and to simply surround ourselves with those who will pat us on the back.

But a healthy “mentorship circle” needs to be populated in each area. Like so:

Mentorship Diagram

  1. Mentors (input): Maybe this is an older, wiser fellow who takes time to show you new things. Or perhaps it’s a book or a podcast. The point is to continually look to outside sources for wisdom. Despite your narcissistic perception that you do in fact know everything, the truth is you don’t.

  2. Mentorees (output): Having an outlet to share your own wisdom with others is needed both for your sake and theirs. You’re not too young to mentor others, regardless of the medium.

  3. Peers (feedback): Having friends and peers whom you see eye-to-eye with will help you overcome tough times and roadblocks in life. They are there to bounce ideas off of, give input, and help. Also, you are there for them — a good friend and a good peer is someone that will encourage you when you’re doing well and tell you when you’re doing wrong.

    A dear friend of mine once said: “You’re not truly my friend until you’ve corrected me.”

  4. Peers (challenges): Learn how to get the most possible growth in the midst of your difficult relationships and situations. It’s boring to alway have someone patting us on the back and telling us how awesome we are. We need adversaries, hurdles, and challenges to keep us moving and growing.

The first interview I posted on this site, over two and a half years ago, happened to be with Glenn Wolsey. He was 15 years old at the time. And it’s a great interview; I enjoyed re-reading it just now.

A true-to-form Glenn Wolsey article. This is the kind of stuff that I loved Glenn’s weblog for. Here’s hoping you keep writing, Glenn.

A quick little AppleScript by Justin Blanton that lets you set a timer via LaunchBar. Works like a charm and is worth its weight in AppleScript gold if only for example number two.

The iPhone Home screen of Chris Bowler.

Although I sometimes toy with the idea of ordering my apps by color or function, the librarian in me will not allow it. Alphabetical it has to be.

iPhone’s Missing Feed Reader

I spend a prodigious amount of time reading on my iPhone.

Half the apps on my iPhone’s Home screen alone involve reading as a predominant, if not exclusive, feature. Mail, Messages, Safari, Tweetie, Instapaper Pro, Simplenote, and Reeder: these are my most-used apps, and each one is used for reading in some way or another. And yet the app which serves no other purpose than to read, seems to be the most frustrating to use for said purpose.

  • In Mail I read and reply.
  • In Messages I read and text.
  • In Safari I read and surf.
  • In Tweetie I read and tweet.
  • In Instapaper I read and drink coffee.
  • In Simplenote I read and write and edit.
  • In Reeder (or any other feed reader app, such as Byline, Fever, Google Reader, NetNewsWire, NewsRack, MobileRSS, etc.) I read.

The predicament with feed reading apps is most certainly not in the quantity of the selections; rather, the quality. This is not to say that most of the legitimate feed reading apps on the iPhone have not been developed with care — but as agents of delivery for my favorite authors, and as contrivances meant for enjoying lengthy bits of text, I prefer a simple app that does less and does it better.

In total fairness asking for the “best feed reader app” is like asking for the “best shirt”. Just as John Gruber so aptly laid out last April when writing on the the UI playground of Twitter clients. John said:

[D]ifferent people seek very different things from a Twitter client. TweetDeck, for example, is clearly about showing more at once. Tweetie is about showing less. That I prefer apps like Tweetie and Twitterrific doesn’t mean I think they’re better. There is so much variety because various clients are trying to do very different things. Asking for the “best Twitter client” is like asking for the “best shirt”.

It is my safe assumption that readers of this website also prefer apps which do less, but do it well. And so read on for a high-level look at some of the more popular iPhone feed readers, what I find good and not-so-good about them, and my suggestions for amelioration.

Reedie

As of this writing the iPhone App Store has nearly 4,000 apps in the News category. This is where all the RSS reading apps are listed. If you search for just “RSS” you’ll get over 700 results, or roughly 18% of the 4,000 news apps. Searching for “RSS Reader” nets you 203 results, and if you get even more specific and search for “Google Reader”, you get 50 apps.

But now compare this to the Social Networking category. It has 2,600 apps, and searching for “Twitter client” returns only about 65 results. There are over three times as many RSS reader apps than there are Twitter Clients in the App Store (based on search results).

Of the 4,000 news apps, the most downloaded are the dedicated apps provided by popular news sources such as the New York Times, USA TODAY, the Associated Press, NPR News, Wall Street Journal, and etc. The first RSS feed reading app you listed amongst the most popular News apps is “Free RSS Reader“; with NetNewsWire Free right on its heals. Surely “Free RSS Reader” is the most downloaded RSS reader by virtue of name alone.

In the most popular social networking apps, the first Twitter client listed is the free version of Twitteriffic. Over its life in the App Store it has received 139,000 reviews, mostly positive. Now compare that to Free RSS Reader which has about 17,000 reviews (mostly negative).

And thus we find a conundrum: the amount of RSS readers for the iPhone that of Twitter client apps, and yet the tables are turned when it comes to quality.

According to a small poll I conducted via Twitter, the app people spend the most amount of time reading from while on their iPhone is Instapaper, followed closely by Tweetie and then Mail.

Tweetie and Instapaper are two classy apps. They are easy to read from, easy to get around in, and a ton of fun. But tweeting and reading things later should not be the only place where all the action is. I would love to see a top-notch, Tweetie-level, RSS reader for the iPhone…

Reedie.

Why? Because when Tweetie 2 blew every other Twitter client out of the water it also sunk a few apps that were in a different part of the pool, and it’s time for a comeback.

There are tons of nerds who were using Twitter way before Ashton was and who have been riding the RSS train for years and years. And since nerds are the pickiest of all when it comes to usability and interface design, they are the ones most in need of a great feed reader app for their iPhone.

Secondly, what Twitter has done for Twitter clients, so has Google Reader done for feed reader apps. As Loren Brichter said during his interview with Macworld:

One of the fantastic things about Twitter clients is how easy it is for users to jump from one to another. Just type in a username and password and off you go. It’s possible for anyone to write a Twitter client nowadays and have the opportunity to completely blow everyone else out of the water.

Granted, the initial set up of a new Twitter account is really simple compared to the same for Google Reader. Twitter asks for your name, desired username, and password, and then you’re free to follow friends and strangers at will. A process significantly more straightforward than creating a Google account, activating Reader, and then finding and populating it with RSS and Atom feeds.

But the type of people that would use a feed reader (nerds!) are also the types of people who already have Google accounts (we’ve been beta testing Gmail since 2004), and who are even more likely to have an OPML file sitting around ready to be imported.

- – -

Up until today, all of my software reviews have been about programs which I find fantastic. But today I’m trying to get out there that I see a chance for improvement in the iPhone App market. But the only way I know how to pinpoint the opportunity is to highlight those who are trying to meet it, and (in my opinion) not quite hitting the mark. It’s not that I have only negative things to say about the following apps, it’s just not all moonbeams and rainbows. Also note that I hold Brent, Sean, Milo, and the other developers all in the highest regard. They are busting their butts to make great software; thank you, guys. Please keep it up.

Google Reader (Mobile Web App)

The online RSS feed reader that took over the world. It was a big day when they began offering public APIs for developers to sync to and from G-Reader, and it was a smart move for NewsGator to abandon their home-brewed syncing platform to allow NetNewsWire (on desktop and iPhone) and FeedDemon to sync via Google Reader.

The mobile version of Google Reader is not too shabby. More than one well respected nerd uses it instead of any number of native iPhone apps which sync to it. And I actually prefer the mobile version over the full web version. However, the mobile version doesn’t support many of the favorite features found in a native iPhone app such as emailing articles and links, saving to Instapaper, and a few others. But it is a classy, speedy mobile web app. And it’s free. Hello.

Byline

Version 1.0 came out in July 2008. It cost a whopping $10 and sported a much more Mail-like UI. Three months later Milo release Byline 2. Then version 2.5 came out in July 2009, and now 3.0 is due for release soon (and will be free for existing users).

Version 3 will finally support Instapaper and Twitter, as well as a few other cool new features and UI refinements. But for the most part it will still look and feel just like the most current version. If you’re not already sold on Byline, version 3.0 will surely not be Just What You Always Wanted. But for the many, many fans of Byline that already exist this next release is sure to be a home run worth waiting for.

There’s quite a bit to like about Byline. For starters, it’s been around for nearly two years — it was one of the original iPhone feed reading apps and has continued to see forward movement. What makes Byline stand out is its caching of your feeds. If you do a lot of offline reading (or if you live in New York or San Francisco) a huge motivation to use Byline may be its ability to store the text and images of your feeds, as well as linked-to Web pages, right on your iPhone. It will also remember stars and unread/read state, and it all syncs back to Google Reader when you’re next online. (The 3.0 version will even have the ability to cache your feed content while the screen is locked.)

However, my biggest quibble with Byline is the GUI. I know that Milo has to develop graphics that look good on many different generations of iPhones and iPod touches, and that he is proud of the look and feel of his app. But in my opinion the heavy gradients used throughout the app are too much, and give an overall impression of immaturity to the app. If it’s not a delight to look at and read from, it’s less of a delight to use.

Since most people voted that if they were reading, chances are they were in Instapaper or Tweetie, I thought it would be interesting to contrast the heavy gradients used in Byline to the subtle gradients used in Tweetie to to the complete lack of gradients used in the iPhone’s Mail app:

Mail vs Tweetie vs Byline in regards to fradients

(FYI: Even though Instapaper won the “most read from app” question, since it uses the same no-gradient design as Apple’s own Mail, I chose Mail for the comparison so as to have a native Apple app in the mix.)

NetNewsWire

Though NNW is arguably the best desktop RSS reader on the planet the iPhone version is not quite as mind blowing as its older brother.

NetNewsWire for iPhone is quick, reliable, and just the right balance of feature-richness versus simplicity. One of its most clever feature by far is the option to choose which feeds are downloaded and synced by your iPhone. Especially handy for those crazy folks that like to sit right in front of the RSS fire hydrant. However NNW feels more like a utility program built for accessing feeds, rather than a contrivance for enjoying them.

Mobile RSS Pro for Google RSS

Here is a clever app. Clearly the developers have put a ton of time and thought into this. And though a few of the features are simply re-works from some of Loren’s popular Tweetie 2 user interactions (such as swipe to reveal options below a listed item, and pulling down a list to refresh), they’ve got some additional great things going for them:

  • MobileRSS Pro saves state perfectly (better than any of the feed readers listed here).
  • It’s fast.
  • It’s got a good-looking, ‘dark’ theme (it’s called “Black” but it’s actually blue).
  • The way they implemented the unread badge count for each feed as a little tag that hangs over the edge of the feed list columns is very cute.

But despite all this, the app just doesn;t feel right due to a handful of little things which make it feel unbalanced:

  • Such as the way my gmail account in shown large type at the top.
  • The large vector icons for “All items”, etc., contrasted against the small favicons for the each feed.
  • I only have one folder, and at the bottom of the root screen it says, “52 Feeds, 1 Folders” (oops).
  • On the item view list of any given feed it has my gmail account name crammed into the back; arrow, with the title of the feed somewhat off center, and then a little “info circle” icon pushed to the right-hand side.
  • It uses the familiar “share” / “export” icon at two different places in the app, yet for for two completely different things: (1) when viewing an individual article, tapping the icon brings up options to email the article’s link, save it to Instapaper, etc.; (2) when viewing an entire feed with its list of articles the same icon is there, and tapping it in this context gives you the options to sort by oldest/newest or to mark all as read.

With a little bit more polish and attention to detail, MobileRSS Pro could be a much more classy app.

Fever

Shaun Inman’s Fever is the best dressed web-based feed reader out there. (I wrote about it at length when it first came out last June.) And the mobile-optimized version of Fever is just as great. It is a delight to use, easy to read from, and is always in sync with itself (duh!).

The downside to Fever’s mobile version is the same as any other mobile web app: no state saving, no caching for offline reading, and little to no sharing/saving features.

I stopped using Fever about four or five months ago when I took a break from RSS feeds all together. Through the holiday season I hardly ever checked my feeds. Similar to the olden days I would visit individual sites on occasion by typing the URL in by hand; and I was happy.

So happy in fact I decided to slash my OPML and only subscribe to that small handful of sites which have a history of enriching my day.

I wanted to keep Fever fully loaded so as to make use of the Hot list on occasion, but I didn’t want the bloat of loading all those feeds in a browser every time I wanted to check RSS. So about six weeks ago I came back to NetNewsWire on my desktop and populated it with only 25 time-worthy feeds.

Now, my current RSS setup is Reeder on my iPhone and NetNewsWire on my Mac — all synced via Google Reader.

Reeder

Reeder’s approach to their app design is brilliant. They’ve sought to bring back some of the nostalgia of reading while on a digital device by virtualizing the look and feel of an old, trusted book. And they did this without sacrificing the ‘touchability’ of a well-designed iPhone app.

The custom GUI goes beyond just the torn-paper markers and off-white background. The pop-up menu for sharing an item unique, being more akin to what you may see on Android OS instead of using the standard buttons on iPhone OS. And there are a few custom, intuitive swipe gestures which can be used to mark individual articles as read, unread, or starred.

In his review of Reeder on Download Squad, Nik Fletcher aptly wrote: “Reeder balances the familiar with custom elements, and as a result the interface looks great when browsing (and reading) content.”

So yes, Reeder is more unique than any of the aforementioned feed reading apps while still feeling familiar and friendly. It is by far the best feed reader app available in the App Store right now. Yet some of its cleverness feels too clever, and since Reeder is so close to being beyond great, its shortcomings seem so much shorter.

For instance, the status bar takeover is neat, but is it necessary? I find myself distracted by it every time open the app. It always makes me think of the stoplight countdown before a Super Mario Kart race begins: Beep. Beep. BEEEEEEEP!1

Secondly, the GUI is not contrasty enough. I love the texture and the vintage, off-white coloring, but it can be difficult to quickly see the difference between a read and an unread item, as well as the lighter colored text which makes it not quite as easy to read on. But this is a subtle quibble…

My primary gripe is the lack of saving state. Regardless of where you are in the app when you quit out of it you will always start back at the beginning when you re-launch it. Compare this against the convenience of state saving found in Instapaper. Instapaper actually saves two types of states: (1) those of individual articles: if you are reading an article and then return to the item list view, and then come back to that article later, it will open in the same place you left it; and (2) overall state: upon a re-launch of Instapaper you will always find it just as you left it.

Reedie

A good feed reader is quick, reliable, and readable. But a great feed reader has to be all of those and more. It has to be clever, very polished, and, of course, fun.

My ideal feed reader app would look like some sort of marriage between Tweetie 2, Instapaper, and Reeder. It would have the sounds and UI elegance of Tweetie 2, the typographic and state saving bliss of Instapaper,2 and the uniqueness of Reeder. (For bonus points it would swipe the swipe-top-navigation-bar-to-go-home feature from Tweetie 2.)

I don’t want another iPhone feed reader, I want a better one. Because apps like Tweetie, Twitteriffic, Birdhouse, and Birdfeed are all outstanding Twitter clients — each one is clever, polished, and fun. And who says feed reading can’t be as enjoyable as tweeting?


  1. Tapping the menu bar while Reeder is syncing will change it back and forth from total menu bar takeover to showing the upating status via icon over the battery.
  2. And speaking of state saving bliss, the 2.0 version of Reeder will have state persistence. (Hat tip to Michael.)