A few weeks ago Google stunned many people by announcing that they would be shutting down Google Reader on July 1st, 2013. For those of us who’s information diet lives and breathes by RSS, this is a big deal. The entire Internet (or at least the RSS reading portion) scrambled for a few days to figure out what alternatives there where and where to go. Now that the initial panic has subsided, its a good time to talk about the alternatives.
Finding good alternatives was more difficult than you’d think. The free service of Google Reader quickly dominated the landscape when it was introduced in 2005. This had the side effect of killing much of the RSS development over the next few years.
I should probably admit at this point that I’m probably one of the reasons that Google killed off Reader. Much of the speculation around Readers death comes down to the fact that Google couldn’t monetize the service. I never really used the official Google Reader web UI, instead I used Google Reader as cloud storage of my feeds and article read status but used native clients such as NewsRack for my Mac and Feeddler RSS Reader Pro on my iOS devices for actual reading/interacting. There was no easy/good way for Google to toss ads in my face.
The good news it there are were some alternatives out there waiting for their moment in the sun. During my research, just a handful seemed to rise to the top as the ones with the most potential: Tiny Tiny RSS, Feedly, and NewsBlur.
tl;dr version: I ended up on NewsBlur. In the rest of the article I’ll talk about why I ended up there.
Like any tool selection, you should pick what works for you, not what works for anyone else or what someone else is using just to keep up with them. Hopefully my exploration will point you at things to try, but don’t use NewsBlur just because I do, use it because it becomes the right choice for you.
For me, any thing I would switch to would need to allow me to continue the behavior of a cloud-based backend and native clients use as much as possible. None of them allowed me to continue exactly as I had, but I’ll discuss each in turn.
Tiny Tiny RSS
Tiny Tiny RSS is an open source web application. It looks good, but you need to host it yourself. No problem if you’re like me, a geek who can set up LAMP servers in his sleep, but there is no hosted option. (That said, if I can avoid doing some work by having someone else host, I will.)
There is an Android client that interacts with it, but currently no iOS clients. Since I’m only rocking iOS mobile devices these days, I continued to look elsewhere.
Feedly has existed for awhile and billed itself as “A Better Reader” and is a more attractive front-end that is dependent on Google Reader. Shortly after Google’s announcement, Feedly announced they would develop their own backend by the July cutoff so they could continue to run their service after Reader goes away.
I personally perfer a more traditional “e-mail like” RSS interface over what feedly gives, so I didn’t gel with Feedly after trying it for a few days. Also, I don’t believe they have yet cut over to their own backend, so its hard to talk about it as a replacement for Reader as we don’t know what the performance and functionality will be like.
Building an RSS reading backend is trickier than it first appears and to make a scalable service between mid-March and July is possible, but a daunting task. I hope they make it as I think rebuilding the RSS ecosystem will need folks like feedly, but it just wasn’t for me.
NewsBlur started as a side project of Samuel Clay as he wanted a better RSS reader, and in March 2012 he received funding to make it his full-time job. Along the way he incorporated social features, an iOS app, an Android app, and ran a respectable small business.
All that changed the day of Google’s announcement as NewsBlur had massive capacity problems when he went from 1,500 daily users to 50,000. He wrote a great blog post that talks about the challenges that popped up in the three days after Google’s announcement and lays out a three month plan to scale it out. Even if you’re not interested in RSS, its a great read from the software/service developer perspective.
NewsBlur has more of the traditional RSS reader layout that I like. Free accounts can only sync up to 60 feeds, but if you become a premium user it goes to unlimited. Premium is currently only $24/yr. It also has social features that I, among others, missed when Google pulled them out of Reader to push people towards Google+. The iOS native client is quick, works well, and has a nice “swipe for the next article” interface when you’re reading a feed.
One of the unique features NewsBlur has is training. You can teach it per feed what articles to emphasis and which to hide. This is really useful on very busy RSS feeds, especially ones where only some of the content is relevant to your interests. For example, on the Joystiq feed, I have it highlight things that are tagged with XBox, PS3, and iOS as those is the gaming platforms I care about, and i have it hide articles that only tagged Android as that currently is not among my gaming interests.
Besides being a good RSS reader there is one other thing I really like about NewsBlur: even as a paid service, Clay is keeping it as open-source and says he’ll always keep it that way. He doesn’t have to it, but I like that he is. That’s good news for continuity in case he decides to go the way of Reader. For now, I’ll gladly pay the $24/yr.