Test driving Google Reader

One of the downsides of being an early adopter in some areas is that I’m a late adopter in many others. I was using a desktop RSS aggregator back in 2002 (Radio Userland, then NetNewsWire) and so came late to the web-based news aggregator market. When I did hop on board, I used Bloglines, one of the early web based aggregators, and so missed out on Google Reader. I’ve stuck with Bloglines because it works and because it works well on the iPhone.

Yesterday, Bloglines wasn’t working. I haven’t seen anything posted about this, but while the site’s UI was up I didn’t get any new results for any of my 175 feeds from about 11 AM on. So in the early afternoon I decided to give Google Reader a spin.

One of the nice things about feed readers is that it’s pretty easy to take all your feeds to a new reader, thanks to OPML (one of Dave Winer’s many innovations in this area). Most feed readers support exporting your feed list to OPML, a structured XML format, and support importing feed lists from OPML. So you can pack up your feeds and easily bring them to a new place–minimizing vendor lock-in. I did that with my Bloglines feeds and was up and running quickly in Google Reader.

One thing that struck me almost immediately was the poorer UI in Google Reader. While it uses the same left pane navigation–right pane reading metaphor as Bloglines, the left pane is cluttered with a bunch of stuff on the top–starred items, trends, shared items and notes, a big help pane, and THEN your list of feeds. Bloglines’ feed list takes up the whole left pane and is just your content–much easier to manage–while other information like your personal blog and “clippings” are in separate tabs. If you’re just interested in reading feeds, Bloglines’ navigation is easier and less cluttered.

The right pane UI is a little better too, imho. I find the separate drop-shadowed feed boxes in the expanded view (what NetNewsWire used to call “smash view”) distracting; Bloglines’ zebrastriped list is visually flatter and doesn’t get in the way of the content. And I can’t imagine a use for the list view for most of my RSS feeds; though perhaps the notification-only ones are better suited for this kind of presentation, I can’t imagine trying to read BoingBoing or even Krugman this way.

Google Reader does feel a little snappier–feeds update more frequently and quicker. But the reading experience is actually slower, because items don’t get marked as read on display, but only if you scroll them off the screen. That might be beneficial for some people, but I’m a quick scanner and like to run through the feed list quickly. And because Google Reader doesn’t fetch all the items in a folder at once, dynamically fetching items as the user scrolls, there’s no way to quickly scroll to the bottom and read everything all at once. You have to wait for the fetch to catch up, then scroll to the bottom again.

So this morning I was pleased to see Bloglines is back online. I’ll still test out the Google Reader iPhone experience, because there are things that don’t quite work for me in Bloglines’s. But I’ll be continuing to use Bloglines in my browser.

Wikipedia edits and the perils of community clashes

I read Dave Winer’s post about Wikipedia edits with some interest, particularly the part about his edits to the RSS topic, a topic which has been politicized in the past. He writes:

Then I decided to look at the RSS page to see if it linked to the RSS 2.0 spec. It didn’t, so I added a link. I haven’t been back to see if that has been reverted.

It surprised me that the RSS page wouldn’t link to the spec, so I went and checked it out. Sure enough, I saw Dave’s edit linking the spec into the article, and then someone else taking his edit out.

Curious as to why someone would make the change, I looked at the article and found that there actually was a pointer to an RSS 2.0 spec. But where Dave was pointing to the Berkman spec page, the Specifications section links to the RSS Board spec page.

The point that grabbed me first, of course, is that the RSS Board is making transparent some minor edits that have happened to the spec over time (I wouldn’t have told you that there had been eight revisions of the RSS 2.0 spec). But the other point that caught my interest is the nature of Dave’s change that was reverted. Dave put an external link into the body of a Wikipedia entry. Most Wikipedia entries I’ve seen put external links in a subsection at the end of an article. Two very different philosophies of linking. Dave’s is bloglike, where the external link adds immediate context; Wikipedia’s is … well, weird. I’m not sure why one would separate out that content, except to say that “This is information that is to be treated differently from the main article.” But, Wikipedia being Wikipedia, one doesn’t have to guess at the intentions of the site. There is a general External links policy and a Manual of Style for links. The main thrust appears to be that only external links that function as sources of article information (i.e. footnotes) appear within the article, while other links appear in a ghetto.

Obvious? No. Does it make sense that Wikipedia has evolved this way? Maybe. What it reminds me more than anything else is that Wikipedia is a group of individuals that have evolved collective guidelines and practices for managing a common resource, that they are in fact a community with different practices and standards than the blogging community. I think the blogging way is right and the false objectivity of Wikipedia is going to be problematic over time. But that’s not the direction Wikipedia has gone and I suppose we should respect that.

RSS for plasma?

I’m looking forward to seeing Dave Winer’s next trick. The clues (the space above his couch, an RSS feed with medium to high resolution images) suggest that he’s preparing a new application that reformats the image content of RSS for widescreen displays—with the original application being news images. Am I close, Dave?

I’d happily get on board this train if I’m right and if it’s easy to get working—and doesn’t require a Windows Media PC.

In which it is discovered that I am an idiot, albeit a funky one.

Color me careless, but slightly funkier: the RSS feed on the new Funky16Corners web site is, in fact, set up as a podcast, with proper enclosures and everything. You may want to subscribe if you have a yen for funk that tastes so good it like to make your tongue beat your brains out, as my pan-Southern uncle would say. (Well, not about funk, but anyway.)

Best track so far on today’s Funky16Corners Radio: “I’m Mr. Big Stuff (Big Deal),” the “answer” record to Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” (of Burger King commercial fame).

Aside: Apple embrace of RSS continues

With the new photocasting capability of the just announced iPhoto update from Apple, which uses RSS as a medium for photo subscriptions, Apple has turned a corner, and so has RSS. I think the day of the monolithic aggregator may be coming to an end. The direction is now toward contextual RSS: feeds of information showing up in applications where they make the most sense. There is no question that iTunes provides a superior experience for subscribing to podcasts–with clear, built-in controls for managing playback and machinery in the form of smart playlists for organizing content.

The other side: Apple is now clearly committed to using RSS as a sharing technology across the Internet, and providing innovative new user experiences for RSS usage. Today’s announcement is in some ways a bigger deal than the iTunes podcasting support. There Apple was hopping on a phenomenon that someone else had created. Today it’s using RSS and the podcasting phenomenon to enrich the sharing experience for its customers.

There’s just one sour note–the out-of-box ability to publish an RSS feed of your own photos from iPhoto requires a paid .Mac subscription. But the same has always been true for the out-of-box ability to publish your own photos to the Web, and it hasn’t stopped innovative developers from creating plugins to allow publishing to arbitrary destinations. And the content that gets published to .Mac is just plain RSS. While I’ll be interested to see what extensions got plopped on this time, this is still really positive.

Update: Even more positive, since you can use iMovie to create video podcasts.

God(casting) Part II: Old South sermons

Following up on the Godcasting meme, my church, Old South in Boston, has started making MP3s of sermons available for download. No RSS feed—the website has no back end publishing system aside from an overworked webmaster—but the content is there.

In fact, I went ahead and scratch-built an RSS file for the content using FeedForAll, so subscribe away: XML. If/when the file moves off this server to Old South’s, I’ll post a standard RSS redirect there instead.

Update: As of 4 pm on Monday afternoon, there’s a big ol’ XML link on the Sermons page. My feed now redirects to the official one. Cheers to Evan, the Old South webmaster, for acting so quickly.

Note to Bloglines users

I have griped in the past about the dangers of lock-in, but never figured I would be directly impacted myself. A few weeks ago, my RSS feed started having problems in Bloglines. I’m not sure what caused the problems, but I suspect the Added Values plug-in, which redirected permalinks and may have redirected my RSS feed, is to blame.

At any rate, my feed stopped updating in Bloglines. Now here’s where it gets fun. I contacted Bloglines about the problem, and they said they fixed something with the feed and that it should now work. Unfortunately, it didn’t. So Craig pinged them. This time, Bloglines deleted the non-responsive version of the feed, and said that re-subscribing should fix the problem. Now the number of people subscribing to my feed in Bloglines—or at least the “working version” of my feed—has gone from 41 to 4. At the same time, my average daily traffic has dropped substantially. I think there are a bunch of people who only saw my content through Bloglines and who aren’t coming to the site to check in.

If this were an RSS issue, I might be able to do something to correct it at my end. But since it’s a Bloglines issue, I have no way to notify any of the subscribers of the problem—except to post it here and hope that someone comes across it. Please re-add me to your subscriptions if you want to continue to get information from this site!

Godcasting: podcasting for churches

New York Times: Missed church? Download it to your iPod. A logical, and perhaps lower-cost, extension of the radio services long used to connect churches with their stay-at-home members, this description of various podcasting churches is ringing a few bells for me.

I have long bemoaned the lack of a strong principled moral opposition to conservative politics in the US, and have thought that the liberal church might provide some of the material to arm that opposition, if only it would speak up. Originally I thought the answer was religious bloggers, such as the Real Live Preacher, coming from a church dedicated to principles of equality before God. I am now imagining the church that I attend, syndicated to the blogosphere, serving a similar function for a similarly scattered flock that KEXP serves for the indie-rock faithful. I also had a discussion with my sister, who is entering her third year at Union PSCE, about technology education for theology students. Maybe this article will provide some inspiration…

(Technology note: Godcast.org, which is serving as an aggregator for a series of religion-themed podcasts, runs on Radio Userland.)

KEXP: podcasting is love

I have to confess: I may be the most unhip tech blogger out there. Reason: I never really understood the podcasting thing. Maybe it’s because my current platform doesn’t support podcast creation (I’m still on an older release of Manila); maybe it’s because I don’t really have the hard drive space to subscribe to a lot of podcasts. But I’m hooked now. Why? KEXP’s new podcast of Northwest bands, which they released last week and which had me grooving all the way into the office this morning.

KEXP’s internet radio stream has been good listening for many years, but it doesn’t go with you in the car. Hearing John Richards’s voice first thing in the morning, listening to northwest indie music while negotiating traffic—it’s almost like being back in Kirkland.

Big ups to John and the station. I’m looking forward to trying out the station’s other podcast too.

This, incidentally, is the flip side of my gripe last month about the iTunes Podcasting Directory. Yes, there are commercial interests there, and yes, they’re going to get heavy promotion. But that’s because they have money, and because otherwise no one would listen to them. As I told a guy from Highland Capital Partners last fall, RSS (and by extension podcasting) is about creating a new delivery mechanism. The thing that’s cool is that it’s one that plays by the rules of the web, not radio or TV. So while the big guys can come in and play in the space, they won’t silence the cool innovative voices that are out there—including both individuals and indie radio stations.

Altering my RSS workflow with BlogLines

Since moving back to the East Coast, I had the luxury of managing a single-location infrastructure. All my mail, calendar, blog management, and most importantly my RSS subscriptions were in the same place: on my laptop. Now that I’ve started work, I’ve discovered some cool ways to manage the RSS part of the workflow from multiple locations.

The key is Bloglines, the online feedreading service that I knew about but had never used prior to this week. I populated Bloglines with a set of important work related feeds (a very short list, compared to my list of 200+ subscriptions). Then I used a new feature in NetNewsWire to add my BlogLines feeds to my reading list, deleting the equivalent versions from my regular subscriptions.

Now, if I read a news item in CNet from home via BlogLines, it’s not downloaded when I open NetNewsWire at home, or vice versa. This enables the best of both worlds: I get to read a subset of my feeds through a lightweight, low impact web interface, and don’t have to manage already-read content through my fuller-featured reader.

The only concern I have about the feature is following up on the items later to blog them. I don’t do very much blogging from work—at least not until I get my formal product management blog ramped up—and there’s no convenient way to keep track of items for later blogging that is preserved from BlogLines to NetNewsWire. My interim solution is to email URLs to myself; not elegant, but effective. (I can also mark memorable items as “keep new,” but since the new setting gets reset when I view the item through Bloglines that’s a less ambiguous way of keeping an item available than flagging it.)