Syndicated summaries of web content are more popular than ever before, and the recent explosion of users has prompted some dramatic changes in the world of RSS software.
Until very recently, NetNewsWire had the lion's share of the limelight, scooping awards and a great deal of praise from Mac-using webloggers.
Then competitors started to appear. First Shrook, and now PulpFiction. The newcomers brought new ideas with them. What's going on?
The race is on to extend the remit of what a newsreader should do, and how it should behave. NetNewsWire added non-newsreading functions such as a weblog editor and outliner/notepad, features first seen in earlier UserLand products. Now all the news apps are fighting for market share and there's more emphasis than ever before on offering a complete browsing environment, with nice extras if possible.
In this article we're going to take a look at some of the newest RSS newsreaders offered for Mac OS X, and size up their different feature lists. At the end, based on what we've seen, we'll try to answer the question: Where is RSS software heading?
Brent Simmons, the creator of NetNewsWire, is no stranger to Mac DevCenter. His efforts to develop a standards-compliant feed reader earned him an Innovators Award last year, and NetNewsWire remains an extremely popular application.
For that reason, we're not going to look at NetNewsWire in a lot of detail. It's fair to assume that you already know it quite well, so we'll just zoom over the basics for the benefit of those who have never encountered it before.
It's pretty clear why NetNewsWire is so popular. It was the first app of its kind (a completely self-contained, dedicated news-feed reader written in Cocoa) for Mac OS X, and gained a large user base because it was done so well and, quite frankly, there were no similar competitors. (Although other RSS-reading software had been available for some time -- apps like Radio UserLand and AmphetaDesk.)
NetNewsWire also gained users because it started out as a free app (and indeed that free, Lite version is still available). When the full-featured application appeared, lots of users rushed to buy licenses.
They were rewarded with lots of extra features. Most importantly, a notepad/outliner, and a very useful weblog editor. Since many webloggers like to browse other weblogs and make posts about what they read, it seemed like the new NetNewsWire was tailor-made for them.
NetNewsWire's basic layout.
The essential functions are wrapped up in a neat window, split into panes for ease of use. There are plenty of keyboard shortcuts for navigating between feeds and articles.
There's lots of nice little features hidden away among the menus: export subscriptions to an OPML file, and nice line-in add-on scripts to do clever things with posts and feeds. That's on top of the weblog editor and notepad.
NetNewsWire's weblog editor window.
NetNewsWire's notepad window.
What's worth noting is that for about a year or so, NetNewsWire dominated the market for news-feed readers on Mac OS X, and remains very popular. (That statement isn't based on empirical research, but it isn't plucked from thin air either -- see figures collated by Werner Vogels and Haiko Hebig.) It had lots of cool features, but other developers were busily creating rival applications that would offer lots of other cool features. The stage was set for a showdown. Now let's take a look at what the competitors had to offer.
PulpFiction is the newest of the bunch, only released for public consumption in early May 2004. The interface is modeled on Apple's popular Mail application, so you can guess that it's very intuitive and easy to grasp from the outset.
PulpFiction's default display.
The first thing you notice when flicking through feeds (PulpFiction comes with a handful of pre-loaded feeds from Mac-centric news sites and weblogs) is PulpFiction's smart default stylesheet. Of course, the style applied to incoming feeds is completely up to you, and there's an option in the program's preferences for changing and editing the stylesheet.
And look at that list of subscriptions. There are columns showing title, creator, subscription, date, and size. You can sort your list by any of these. Just like a mail client.
PulpFiction's default style applied to a post.
The second thing you'll notice is the features for handling, archiving, and organizing feeds. This is where the use of RSS as a medium for information distribution starts to warp and change. I don't know about you folks, but I tend to read a feed and discard it. I've never felt the need to hoard all this stuff; I have enough information spilling out of my head as it is.
But PulpFiction offers a great deal of options for keeping feeds archived locally, for future reference. The pop-out drawer is there for sorting feeds into folders, so you can keep all your favorite blogs in one place, all your news, all your sports. They're together for easier browsing.
PulpFiction, you see, treats feeds like email messages. You can create filters to perform actions on feeds. Sort them into folders, add color labels, and so on. Creating and editing filters means a quick trip to the Preferences box, but is just as easy as using everything else in the app.
Setting a filter in PulpFiction.
Crucially, PulpFiction stores all your incoming feeds. Old feeds are archived away but the default behavior is not to delete them. Over time, they will build up into a sizable pile of information. Just like your archived mailboxes, right?
So it follows that if PulpFiction is going to treat feeds like emails, it has to offer a way to search them. The built-in search does just that, working swiftly to hunt down three messages mentioning Gmail from my total of 361. OK, so after a few months of using this app, rather than a few hours, you might have considerably more messages to search than that, and things might take a little longer.
There's more. PulpFiction has its own browser for viewing web pages directly from feeds. As you might expect, the browser is based on Apple's Web Kit renderer technology, so it looks, behaves, and performs just like Safari.
Except without the extras you get with Safari. It's a bare-bones browser for viewing weblog pages and perhaps adding comments to them. Personally, I'd rather have web pages open in my usual browser (Mozilla Firefox) so I can keep all my web browsing in the one place, and make use of the extra features there. This behavior is, of course, adjustable from PulpFiction's preferences.
There are plenty more features in PulpFiction that we haven't got room to explore here. At $25, this is a good-value application that offers many new features for RSS. Treating feeds like email makes a lot of sense, especially for newcomers to the concept.
More importantly, the introduction of a raft of innovations in PulpFiction is an indication of what's to come elsewhere. It's likely that other RSS readers, both existing and still under development, will consider similar features.
That said, PulpFiction and NetNewsWire are not mutually exclusive. Sure, their basic functions are the same but each offers very different extras. It's easy to imagine circumstances where people might want to purchase both applications.
Where PulpFiction is inspired by Mail, Shrook takes its interface cues from iTunes.
Shrook's default layout has your channels and content displayed in columns. On the far left is a list of sources, to which you can add your own collections of feeds (just like creating a new playlist in iTunes).
Next is the list of subscriptions; then the articles available in each one; and finally the text of one particular post. It's a clean, clear layout decision that is visually appealing, although likely to hog a lot of screen real estate for users with smaller monitors.
Shrook's four-column layout.
Newcomers to Shrook might feel a bit lost without anything to read; never fear, if you've already used NetNewsWire, Shrook can import all your feeds from there with a helpful command under the File menu. Having connected to the central Shrook server (more on that in a minute), the Channel Guide in the Sources column fills up with nearly 200 suggested feeds, neatly broken down into categories. It's very easy to browse through and add some more to the library.
What's radically different with Shrook is the way it fetches and delivers your chosen feeds. It can be set to fetch feeds directly from the publishing site, like any other reader, but by default it is set to use a system called "Distributed Checking." This is a unique adaptation of traditional feed reading.
It works like this: when one copy of Shrook (it might be yours) encounters a new item on a feed, it passes that on to a central server, which in turn tells all other copies of Shrook. This reduces demand on individual publishers of feeds, although some users might have concerns about bandwidth and privacy. It's worth reading the Distributed Checking FAQ if you think this might be a problem.
The advantage is a more efficient use of bandwidth overall, and a faster update time for each user of Shrook. Users can also choose to sign up at shrook.com and use multiple copies of the application on several different computers -- and keep all of them synchronized. For power users, that's potentially a very useful service indeed.
The disadvantage is that you are tied to one server for your feeds. If there's any kind of network problem -- and there was for me, the first time I tried using Shrook -- your feeds window remains stubbornly blank.
Like PulpFiction, Shrook has a built-in browser, also built using Apple's Web Kit. Rather than open in a new window, it cleverly fits inside the Shrook interface. When reading a post, a simple keyboard shortcut (Command+Option+O) collapses the columns view and displays the browser view instead.
Shrook in browser mode, with columns collapsed from view.
There are dozens of other ways of reading RSS feeds. Some of them don't even require a new piece of software.
You might like to use web-based services like NewsIsFree, Syndic8, Bloglines, or recent newcomer Kinja. Aggregated lists (known in Kinja-speak as "digests") can be shared with other people, and since it's all browser-based, you can reach it from any computer.
AmphetaDesk has been around for Mac, Windows, and Linux users for awhile, and adopts another unique approach. Written in Perl, it uses the system's default browser to display a customized "start page" of links to stories. It's a swift and simple solution that eschews extras.
If you want to get even more lo-fi than that, there's the innovative ERA, which grabs feeds and sends them to your email client. (Disclosure: I've been using ERA for months now, and I like it.) For people who already spend a lot of their time reading and writing mail, or who use an older computer that won't run today's feed readers, this is a good choice. The interface is minimal -- all commands for subscribing to feeds, and managing those subscriptions, are sent to ERA by email. Simple, but effective.
RSS is still finding its feet. Most Internet users have never even heard of it, let alone understand what it does. The version numbers of all the apps mentioned here say it all: NetNewsWire 1.0.8, PulpFiction 1.0, Shrook 2. This is a young technology with a long journey ahead of it.
But adoption is growing very fast. Anyone who has demonstrated the way RSS works to a friend who does a lot of web browsing will have seen their friend's face light up with pleasure when they understand how reading feeds can save them a huge amount of time. As this understanding spreads, so uptake and long-term use of RSS will explode ever further.
Feeds are starting to turn up in incredibly useful places, outside the tightly-knit universe of weblogs. There are feeds from Reuters, Amazon, the BBC, even from government agencies. This rapid adoption of feed technology by large and powerful organizations says a lot for the positive reputation the technology has, among both feed subscribers and feed creators.
The applications we've looked at share a common theme and a common background, yet they look very different from one another, and all bring a different set of new ideas to the concept of what a feed-reading client should be capable of. If you compare development of RSS software to development of web browsers, we're somewhere in the early part of 1995 right now, the time when Mosaic and Netscape were all fighting for users, and Microsoft had still not released Internet Explorer 1.0.
The fact that all of these feed readers offer great extra features, but that each application remains very different and distinguishable from its peers, demonstrates that innovation is what's pushing this little corner of Mac OS X software development onwards. Long may it continue.
Editor's note -- If you're attending this year's WWDC, then you might want to check out the O'Reilly-branded BoF, RSS, Web Services and Online Content in Cocoa Apps, facilitated by Fraser Speirs. Fraser will be joined by a panel of experts including Brent Simmons (NetNewsWire), Steven Frank (cofounder of Panic Software), and Michael McCracken (Blapp).
Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.
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