March 15, 2013, 8:30 AM —
I spent too much time yesterday pondering a future without Google Reader. If you're sick of this topic and don't understand what all the fuss is about, that's fine. This post isn't for you. If like me you rely heavily on Google Reader currently, hopefully we can help each other out.
First I'm going to share how I use Reader currently. I currently have 59 feeds coming into Reader (I have a lot of churn, constantly adding/removing sources based on discovery and usefulness). Reader's 'Trends' (hidden under the All Items section) tells me: "over the last 30 days you read 8,913 items, clicked 215 items, starred 1 items, and emailed 0 items. Since January 3, 2011 you have read a total of 300,000+ items." Based on discussions over the past day I figure that makes me a 'mid-range' Reader user.
What's important to me in an RSS ecosystem is the ability to skim through many headlines quickly, from many places. Currently I use the Reader site on the browsers of my various computers, GReader Pro on my Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 (ie, Android) devices, and Mr. Reader on the iPad. Both GReader Pro and Mr. Reader sync with Google Reader. That means if I have 150 new postings to sift through, I can skim 25 on my phone while I'm walking the dog, another 50 on a tablet while I'm waiting for the pasta water to boil during dinner prep, and then sit down at the computer after dinner and open a browser to read the final 75. Each device keeps updated on what is read and unread.
I only read very short posts in the Google Reader ecosystem. Longer stuff gets sent to Instapaper or Pocket (I use one for work, the other for pleasure reading). Both GReader Pro and Mr. Reader have integration for both of those services.
So that's the system I'm trying to replicate and really, it doesn't sound all that complex, does it? But I haven't found a lot of options. I'll list what I have found and hope you readers will add your favorites.
One service I've heard a lot of good about is NewsBlur. NewsBlur has a website as well as iOS and Android apps. The free version is pretty limited but the paid version is very cheap ($1/month). The web version has a view that is information dense; a good thing when you have a ton of articles to sort through. I think the service is supposed to sync read/unread between mobile and web but that hasn't worked for me so far. I reached out to NewsBlur on Twitter but got no response.
To be fair, the site is getting crushed right now, so it may be that the syncing features are timing out. The mobile apps are pretty slow but again, at this point I'm attributing that to swamped servers. The NewsBlur twitter account acknowledged that they were getting hammered and they're taking steps to address the situation. I plan to give them another look in a few weeks. After all we have until this summer to find a new tool.
Another service that is getting good press is Feedly. Currently Feedly is using Google Reader's API as its back end, but the company is in the process of cloning that API via a system they call Normandy. The idea is that the day Google turns off the Reader API (something Feedly says they've been anticipating, so Normandly development has been underway prior to this news), Feedly will cut everyone over to Normandy and it'll be a completely seamless transition for readers. The Feedly team is doing a great job trying to lure in and comfort Google Reader users and that effort seems to be paying off (as of yesterday afternoon Feedly was #1 in the News category of the App store).
Feedly has iOS and Android apps. Curiously their web interface requires a plug-in, and they support Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Feedly syncs your content using the Google Reader API and their apps support sharing with Instapaper and Pocket (as well as other services). If I had to switch today, I'd switch to Feedly. The web version has an information-dense "Titles" view which makes skimming through headlines super-fast. The mobile apps don't get quite as dense, putting a maximum of 4 listings on a page on my Nexus 7, but the app is quite snappy and I can flip through pages really quickly. For more casual browsing there are a variety of image-enhanced views.
I'm pretty happy with Feedly right now but what happens when they cut over to Normandy? Hopefully it'll be smooth sailing but it's hard to trust in that happening when you don't have a backup plan. So far I don't have a backup plan. Feedly is free right now but they're talking about a Feedly Pro service coming sometime soon. Personally I'd gladly pay if it meant the difference between having a fast, reliable service and a slow, glitchy one.
The last service I wanted to mention doesn't even exist yet. Apparently Digg has announced that they're going to be offering a replacement service for Google Reader. They claim they were planning something like this for the second half of 2013 but now they're making it a priority. I'm a little concerned with this quote:
We hope to identify and rebuild the best of Google Reader’s features (including its API), but also advance them to fit the Internet of 2013, where networks and communities like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and Hacker News offer powerful but often overwhelming signals as to what’s interesting.
The one thing I absolutely don't want is 'crowd-sourced' news (which is why I think the various tech pundits saying RSS is dead and social is the way to go are, frankly, dumb). I want a raw data flow from the sources I choose. I want to be the only one deciding what is important to me. Hopefully Digg doesn't build something that sorts news feeds based on how many times a piece has been retweeted or something equally stupid.
Digg has a signup page if you want to keep up with their progress on this project. The page also has a huge Google Reader countdown, which feels a tad ghoulish to me, but maybe that's just an indication that I'm over-attached to Google Reader!
I'm guessing Digg won't be the last company to come forward to fill this void. I'm cautiously optimistic about Feedly and hope NewsBlur can step up to handle the traffic.
But I'm sure I've missed services, so if you have a favorite please share in the comments. Rough specs are: web, iOS and Android clients that have hooks for pushing content to Instapaper and Pocket (and the more hooks the better), and the ability to sync data between the various clients. Bonus points for supporting offline reading on the mobile platforms.
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.