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RSS: The Next Generation

by Giles Turnbull
06/15/2004
What are Syndication Feeds

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?

Reader the First: NetNewsWire

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 basic layout
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
NetNewsWire's weblog editor window.

NetNewsWire's notepad
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.

Reader the Second: PulpFiction

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
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
PulpFiction's default style applied to a post.

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