Thoughts surrounding Google Reader’s demise

First off, I'm sad to see Google Reader is closing up soon (why so soon when other Google apps came with 12-18 months of notice?). I know some people that developed and worked on the product and to this day I use it several times a day to keep up on a few hundred blogs I follow (as well as weirder feed things like like recent comments in specific posts I'm interested in, obscure search results at ebay for items I'm tracking, and of course, mentions of my name or sites across blogs). I use the service almost as much as I use Twitter and it wasn't easy news to take, since I thought it'd always be around like water or electricity, run by the largest technology company on earth. Now I'm left second guessing using any Google product that doesn't clearly carry advertising on it, knowing the plug can be pulled at any time. I thought I'd write up some thoughts below and some quick reviews of alternates in the hopes others in the same boat can figure out what to do next.

Why is RSS interesting?

I admit the world of RSS is a pretty geeky circle to run in (if you know what RSS stands for, you're officially in the club). You've got a mix of web technologists, nerds, and news junkies that are all so busy that they no longer want to browse the web, they'd rather check a stream of updates that were fetched for them. RSS is basically TiVo for the web, and like TiVo in say, the year 1999, only the hardest core nerds are interested in it. Most web users love it and find it useful once you explain how it works (sites publish a file that gets periodically checked and fetched, to be reposted in your client of choice for reading updates) but like TiVo, it's a huge hurdle to get over, to explain to people why this technology is worth it and saves so much time.

Why should anyone care about Google Reader?

Google Reader was the best of breed. It started around 2005 and became one of the first few web-based services for reading RSS. Up until then most people used a desktop app to read RSS feeds from sites, but I personally liked the flexibility of using a web browser on any computer to stay up to date on what I'd read (it's a lot like the old days of POP email, if your unread counts get out of sync across devices, email was harder to use). Around 2007, Google Reader started adding more features and getting easier to use, by 2010 Google Reader was getting fairly amazing, notifying you of new posts within seconds of them going up (relying on the global network of Googlebots scouring the web) and being able to provide feeds for pages without RSS

My favorite time is around mid-2011, by then Google Reader was fast, easy to use, reliable, available on my mobile devices natively in a browser or also in a client like Reeder, and there was also a hidden social network of other news junkies and nerds. You could share items to the public or just your friends, you could comment on articles just among friends you'd connected with. I used to follow random people I didn't know in any other context but knew them through their amazing shared items. Most all the social stuff was stripped in late 2011 to make way for Google+ share buttons, but they didn't work the same and took your shared items away from Reader into an entirely other site so few people used them.

Google Reader announcing they are going away soon is a huge problem. It means the loss of a beloved app for a lot of nerds and news junkies, including a great number of journalists, not only those working in the technology field. It means a lot of tiny blogs won't get noticed as easily if we won't be able to easily monitor infrequently updated blogs written by experts. I'm convinced we'll see some effects of this closure on journalism, until writers scramble to find alternate ways to monitor thousands of contacts and researchers writing online.

While Google was innovating on Reader from 2005-2013, pretty much every competitor slipped away. Desktop clients were waning, web-based locally hosted readers gave up development as Google surpassed what a few small developers worth of resources could create and eventually many apps simply tied into a centralized Feed API Google launched so you could basically use Google Reader in different clients and interfaces, always keeping your sync/read numbers correct. Recently I noticed quite of lot of filtering has found its way into Google Reader, where I'm only presented with new posts from my most favorite sources at the top when my unread counts are high, which is a nice touch and points to some interesting AI happening in the background to figure those out for me.

The thorny problems of writing your own

Everyone I know is scrambling for alternative services and there are a handful around and many more being built. Seeing these new smaller outfits with their servers being slammed by a few thousand new users indicates just how big and reliable the Google infrastructure behind Reader is. There are a lot of thorny issues to solve for anyone planning to make a successor to Google Reader:

1. The update bot – Google had the advantage of having not only thousands of server farms across the world but many thousands of bots running constantly across millions of sites every day checking for updates. Building a bot isn't the hardest thing in the world, but building one that can quickly scan through hundreds of thousands of sites a day is non-trivial and is a major endeavor. Keeping one running is more than a full time job.

2. Feed APIs – The central brain of any RSS reading app is often available via programming interfaces so your UI can stay in sync with your website view and mobile apps. A lot of current RSS readers rely on the Google Feed API that is likely going away, so it'll be a fairly big project for anyone to rebuild this for their app. I have heard talk of people trying to share resources here, attempting to make a centralized service others can use, but I don't have high hopes of that coming together in the very short time frame we have.

3. Search – I recall someone formerly at Google once telling me that providing custom search across all your feeds was a huge undertaking that basically requires a service to keep a copy of every blog post in every blog ever tracked in the entire system, and provide that indefinitely. I don't use search much in Google Reader but I hear that's a killer feature for many others. The feature obviously ramps up your storage needs for any project.

4. Economics – The toughest problem to solve is in the end, how many people would pay for building and maintaining a service? How many users did Google Reader ever have, and what small number would pay someone else to try and make something as good? This is the tough part and beyond a few thousand nerds, I'm not sure if you can convince a larger casual web audience that your product is worth paying for. A lot of outfits are trying to create magazine-like applications that suggest interesting articles from their system and that may be the way to lure the "normals" to a news reading service, but it's tough to say even after building the immense hardware and software required to run a reader-type app, if it's possible to support more than a tiny team of 2-3 programmers on the revenue from users. That said, I'm actually wary of RSS reading apps that don't charge. I want anything replacing Google Reader to stick around.

Quick reviews of existing readers

Since the announcement, I've been playing with alternatives to Google Reader. I didn't try out any desktop or self-installed applications since I move from computer to computer fairly often and need everything to be centralized and web-based. Here's some quick thoughts on each service currently out there:

Feedbin: This is a nice simple reader interface, clean and doesn't get in the way. I'd describe it as feeling like 2007-era Google Reader before they added social features to the app. It costs $12/yr which is good to hear, but so far I've found myself having to click every headline to see a post, as it doesn't seem to offer the low-friction "river of news" showing all new posts from all the blogs you follow in a single stream that automatically marks themselves as read as you scroll. This also required an uploaded backup of my Google Reader blog list, causing it to think every single blog I follow had all new items. This meant I had to hit "mark as read" for all and start over.

Newsblur: A popular suggested service to me was this one, which is normally free up until I think 100 feeds then it is $24/yr and I saw a $36/yr option for the heaviest users. This service is slammed and took me a day to even sign up, but once on their development server, I was really happy with this. I could import my blogs directly from Google Reader and it maintained read/unread status for me. The feature set is really close to maybe 2010-era Google Reader, with a social component including sharing and comments from friends, but I also noticed comments on posts from random readers which could be kind of annoying. There are some attempts to filter items towards stuff you like most, but so far this one is the big champ for a reader replacement.

Feedly: Feedly is slick looking, but annoying in ways. It requires the use of a Chrome extension in my browser that also inserts a little ghosted share icon/feature into the lower right corner of every web page you view, which bugged me. The default views are trying to look like the Flipboard iPad app, but you can get a Reader-like view if you jump deeper into it. I gave up on this shortly after I imported my blogs from Google Reader as it seemed the service was also built on the Google Feed API and would need to transition off that soon. The service seems free so I'd be wary of jumping on board long-term as a replacement.

The Old Reader: This is something I dabbled with last year and coming back to it again I noticed it's pretty close to the way Google Reader looked and worked in 2010-11. They built it to bring back the sharing and commenting aspects, but the service is fairly slow since the Google Reader announcement and I didn't notice a way to pay for an account, so I'm not sure what the future prospects are for it.

There are a lot more options out there and since I tweeted what was essentially meant as a "I volunteer as Tribute to help build a new RSS reader"  I've heard from another half-dozen or so developers and companies working on a Google Reader replacement, so expect to see many more options soon in the coming months.

Eleven

After upgrading my first mac (powerbook) to another powerbook, then to an iMac and finally to a Mac Pro, I realized five years of using the Migration Assistant had finally run its course. Various basic parts (mostly Keychain Access) of Leopard stopped functioning properly and since everything ran great on my new Macbook Air, I decided it was time to backup, format, and reinstall fresh on my main Mac Pro.

A few hours after upgrading I installed Firefox and my most often used apps like Transmit and Textmate. Every few days I realized I needed one more app so I’d download and install it. After a week or so, I was pretty much done reinstalling.

Last year I wrote about doing as much as possible using online apps and how I found it really handy, so today I looked at my Applications folder to see how many things I’ve installed aside from the default Mac apps. I counted 11 applications total outside of iLife and iWork. It includes a couple proprietary things I need for installed hardware (like the wonderful ScanSnap) but it’s mostly the basics (Firefox, Transmit, etc) for doing my everyday work tending MetaFilter.

The thing that surprises me is that I reformatted my computer about six weeks ago, and I haven’t felt like anything is missing since. Thanks to a combination of almost all my work being done online and the great set of built-in functionality of OSX, I can get by on an almost completely clean system.

Ten years ago I had literally hundreds of apps on my Windows box, and I feel like I was constantly needing more.

Satisfaction – People-Powered Customer Service

Satisfaction has launched (more on their blog). Disclaimer: officially I’m a “member” of their “advisory board” (airquotes because it sounds more important than it seems — unofficially, I talked to Lane every so often over the past few months and they patterned some design/interaction decisions similar to the ways I run MetaFilter and Ask MetaFilter).

I’m happy to see the site going public, I think they’ve got some great ideas and a great design, and it’ll be interesting to watch them grow. At the moment, they’re a great way to get tech support help from regular folks instead of the large companies that typically have bad tech support and I’m sure a lot of smaller companies might just use them for all their support needs (why reinvent the trouble ticket wheel for the 1000th time?). If enough small companies get on board, it’ll be interesting to see how larger corporations interact with the service. I think the challenge out of the gate will be to keep things helpful and on a positive note, without descending completely into a consumer rant/spew/rage kind of thing that sites like Consumerist sometimes veer into.

Check it out — there’s not much there now but I think it’ll turn into something really useful and novel in a short period of time.

24 hours with the iPhone: my dream mini computer

After my initial problems, I got a new iPhone from my nearby Apple store and spent several hours using it. My first reaction is that it’s very good, meeting the almost impossible expectations I had for it. Photos are fun and look great, movies are nice and will work great on planes, and the iPod functionality looks good.

The thing that really knocked my socks off was Safari.

I do almost everything in a web app, and even with my blackberry pearl I was stuck with a crippled browser that could only use about half the apps I need. It was a breakthrough over my last device (which was painful for more than 1 or 2 web page views) but I never thought having a full copy of safari on a phone would be so liberating (especially since I only use firefox on my mac).

I have a set of tasks I normally do to keep up on all the workings of metafilter, but I used to only be able to check email and read the front pages of my sites on the pearl. Typically that was the bare minimum and I would wait until I got to a desktop to finish the rest of my work. Last night while catching up on some fluffy TV, I used my iphone for about two hours and it was pretty close to what I do with a laptop. I could check the sites, use all my admin tools. Ajax effects worked throughout and I could finally check my bank balance from my phone (my bank’s site requires javascript and locked out my last 2 phones).

Usually before I go to bed, I have to sweep through half a dozen sites and apps to make sure everything is on the up and up. I learned that I could do everything on the iPhone, and I could do it from anywhere on earth. This is going to be great for airports and other places where I used to feel bored, trapped, and in dire need of internet access.

So in conclusion, the iPhone is nice from start to finish, but Safari is really the thing that turns it from a phone into a mini-laptop. Once I get more used to two-thumb typing, the last limitations that keep it from feeling like a real computer will be gone.

Bug report: Two things that suck about Gmail

Gmail is the best web app there is, period. It’s also my sole interface to email. It’s close to perfect, but a couple things keep me from calling it as such.

I get a ton of spam, in the low thousands per day, and gmail is pretty good about most of it, but it does generate a lot of false positives. Given that say 3,000 spam messages come in every day, false markings on 3 or 4 messages is damn good percentage wise (putting gmail’s filters as 99.99+% accurate), but it still sucks to miss out on legit email. I’ve found a couple places where Gmail is lacking:

  1. I have a few filters for mailing lists and email from my websites’ contact forms, which each get labels. Stuff I filter on sender or receiver and label should bypass spam filters. Today I missed several messages addressed to my contact form and one mailing list message that was merely someone’s eulogy of a lost friend. I don’t think spammers are going to guess all my filter rules and labels to get around Gmail’s spam-catcher so I think it’d be safe to skip the spam checks on any specially filtered or labeled mail. If you’re on a mailing list that gets spam, you should probably fix it through your mailing list software, not your client. I can’t have any false positives with private mailing lists (spammers will never join) or contact forms (it’s my first point of contact with outside strangers and very important that I don’t miss any).
  2. I get a lot of phishing scam email that makes it into my inbox and Gmail’s phishing reporting makes you think you’re doing something substantial (it requires the extra step and all), but in reality I’ll get several exact copies of things I’ve already reported as phishing scams minutes to hours after I report the first one. It’d be nice if Gmail would kill any and all future attempts that match previously reported phishing spam.

Crap I love: Wesabe

After working on my own for a year, this past summer I finally got around to examining my finances. I did what most people do: I got a copy of the latest Quicken, spent a week entering data into it, and then I stared at graphs wondering how on earth my spending always seemed to go up when my income went up, even though it didn’t feel like I was going on new shopping sprees.

I quickly found Quicken to be a bear. The category system is a pain, and every charge can only have one category attached. Making new categories and arranging subcategories would frequently crash Quicken 2007 for the Mac, making me lose work in the process. Like every other time I’ve tried to use some piece of financial software, I eventually gave up.

About a month ago, I started using the Wesabe beta (co-founder Marc Hedlund is a friend of a friend). The app has lofty aim of helping you track spending, realize your goals, and share tips with everyone. There are also social effects, where people using the same merchant can post reviews, allowing you to surf around for a new mechanic or grocery store based on other members’ satisfaction and spending.

For me, the main draw was simply having a powerful web version of something like Quicken, but flexible like flickr or delicious. Instead of categories, there are tags. And you can put any number of tags on something, and sort spending per tag. This is a really big breakthrough. A few things I discovered from doing this:

  • I tagged every gas station purchase with gas and auto. With a single click, I could see how much I spent just on gasoline each month and I could also see how much I spent overall on owning cars (by tagging all payments and repairs with auto).
  • Among the dozens of gas fill-ups I had this year I noticed some were for roadtrips, so I could tack on a tag for that single trip (and add the tag: travel), then tag every other purchase from that trip with the city name. One click on the roadtrip city name and I could see how much that trip cost me, and I could also see how much travel in general cost me each month.
  • I’ve taken to tagging any purchase that is a gift to myself, or an extravagance, or any non-necessary thing with: extra. In a click, I can see how much money I waste each month on silly gadgets, bike upgrades, and wacky t-shirts. There was never an easy way to get that kind of data from Quicken.

The other smart thing Wesabe does is make data entry easy. My bank gives me some ugly metadata that usually just features the address of the business where a charge was made. In Quicken, I’d have to memorize 1590 Booth Bend road equalled Lowe’s Hardware and I’d have to categorize every purchase by hand. Wesabe is pretty slick in that you put a description in once for a merchant, then the app finds each and every purchase ever made at that same chunk of metadata, and automatically copies the tags and description for the first one you marked. Thanks to this feature, I tagged and described an entire year’s worth of purchases in about 90 minutes. Now, I do weekly updates from my bank data and it takes just a few minutes to keep everything up to date.

The app is still new, and about the only drawbacks I’ve found is that the history reporting and graphing doesn’t feel completely built out yet (and I’ve heard lots more is to come in that realm). I’m used to Quicken’s graph magic and Measuremap and Google Analytics where you can click on any bar graph and figure out what exactly caused a spike. At the moment, the bar graphs simply report your patterns in spending but lack any sort of “zoom” feature to get more detail.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Wesabe. At every point where Quicken stood in the way of my progress with ease-of-use roadblocks, Wesabe makes it painless. Now that it’s open to the public, the Tips and Goals sections might get built out more and the social aspects will kick in, but at the very least, the accounting section of the app is truly killer and helping me finally get a handle on my spending.

Wesabe (free, probably paid pro options in the future)