Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Goodbye Reader...

As you may know, Google is shutting down Google Reader on July 1st. That's less than a week from now. I know that RSS is a completely unknown thing for most of you, but some people — like myself — rely on it for a lot of our information gathering. The link above says Reader is no longer needed, as we browse news in small bits through the day. That argument is not wrong, exactly, but it assumes that gathering news snippets is the only reason people use RSS.

This RSS Thing Would Be What, Exactly?

If you don't know, many (most, even) sites publish their content not just as ordinary web pages. They also publish a small file — an "RSS feed" — that contains the headlines and summary of everything they've published lately. Could be news, blog posts, forum updates; anything that has new content showing up periodically.

You can use a "news reader" program to subscribe to RSS feeds, and will show you all the new stuff you've yet to see in a simple list format or magazine-like layout. You click on anything you want to read, and it takes you straight to the piece in your web server. On this blog you can find the link to the feed at the very bottom of the page; or just click here to see the raw data directly. Below you see a set of posts displayed by NewsRob, my favourite Android news reader.

RSS is great for sites with a lot of new stuff every day. It's much, much faster to quickly browse through a single list of new things, than go to each site in turn. With RSS you know what you have seen already and what is new, so you don't miss anything.

I use RSS in part to get announcements for new research papers from places such as PLoS, Nature Neuroscience, Neural Computation, Journal of Computational Neuroscience and so on and so on. There's a lot of new papers published every single day, and I'd go nuts trying to keep up with it all without RSS.

But RSS is also great for sites that update only rarely. Take a blog like this one. I update it irregularly, perhaps 3-5 times a month. Sometimes I post twice in a day; sometimes there will be weeks between posts. To find out if I have posted anything youneed to come by and check. But that can feel pretty pointless when there's nothing new for weeks on end, and of course you'll often forget to check at all. But if you subscribe to the RSS feed at the bottom, it doesn't matter if I am silent for months — as soon as I post something you'll find out about it, and you don't have to do anything.

I subscribe to quite a lot of blogs by friends, researchers and others that post only rarely. This is also how I keep up with software releases, online comics, fun projects and places such as What If?, Research In Progress and WTF, Evolution?  With RSS I never have to worry about missing an update.

So, What's The Problem?

To use RSS you need some kind of "reader". That's an app that takes the feeds you're interested in, periodically checks them for anything new, and lets you go through the results. You want to be able to read entries in the app itself, or click through and get the original in your browser. It should let you see the whole entry, or just a list of headlines. If should let you save entries for later. And ideally it should synchronize with your other devices; if you've read a feed on your computer already, it shouldn't show up in the reader app on your phone.

There were — and are — quite a lot of reader apps for computers, tablets and phones. Firefox "Active Bookmarks", for instance, is really a simple feed reader, good if you follow only a few sources. But in 2005 Google released Google Reader, an browser-based reader app similar to Gmail. And just like Gmail it was good — really good. It's just a web page, so it's available anywhere you have a web browser. The interface was simple, fast and intuitive, and let you easily share things with others. It had an open "API" (an interface for other apps to use) that let any other reader synchronize with Google Reader.

It was so good, in fact, that it largely killed the market for other, similar readers. Phone and computer apps morphed into clients for Google Reader. The few online readers that remained led a quiet existence in the shadow of the giant. Few people minded, though. Reader was very good, after all, and the open API meant that you could use any client you wanted, on any phone, tablet or computer, and still get the benefits of synchronization and other perks.

Then, this spring, Google announces that Google Reader will be discontinued on July 1st. And now the whole fragile ecosystem that's grown up around Google Reader is falling apart. For instance, NewsRob, by favourite Android reader app, is floundering as the developer is figuring out what to do when synchronizing to Reader is no longer possible. And heavy users like myself have been agonizing all spring about what to do and where to go.

It's Not "Problem." It's "Opportunity."

The demise of Google Reader has really been like the toppling of a huge jungle tree. The tree is gone, and some plants and animals that depended on it is following it into oblivion. But the fall has cleared out a new, fresh space, where plants that lived in its shadow can finally thrive and grow. In the end, the demise of Reader may create a larger and more vibrant ecosystem than the one that disappeared with it.

There are quite a lot of alternatives out there, with new ones announced every week, and for the past couple of months I've considered many of them. A lot of people are moving to Feedly, and rightly so. It's a slick, beautiful app for Firefox (as a plug-in) and clients for Android and IOS. I used it for a while about a year and a half ago. But the magazine layout format doesn't really work for me, and there's some issues with it if you get feeds with lots of new items at the same time, so I'm giving it a pass.

NewsBlur and The Old Reader are online apps in the same vein as Reader itself, and new alternatives are cropping up daily, from Digg, AOL, and other places. Newsblur looks especially promising and I was very close to signing up. It has a small monthly subscription fee if you have a large amount of feeds, but I would have no problem with paying for an important service. What kept me off either is that I'd be dependent again on a cloud service I don't control. If I pick one and it disappears in a year or two I'd be back in the same bad situation as now.

There are a number of stand-alone reader apps for Android, IOS, Windows, Linux and so on, and they can be a great alternative if you don't want to sync across devices. But syncing is important to me; I have time to look through my feeds during the morning commute, but I need to be logged in at work to actually fetch research papers.

Lastly, there's actual web apps available. They require you to set up a web server for yourself, or get access to web hosting some way or another. Tiny Tiny RSS is probably the most popular alternative, but there are a number of others as well, such as Fever or CommaFeed. Setting up hosting or a server and a web app is a lot of work, but the advantages are great. You have a full net-based reader, available from anywhere but completely under your own control. The service isn't going away unless you want it to. Still, it'd be complete overkill to set up and maintain a web server just for an RSS reader, especially when there's numerous good, simple alternatives out there.

And The Winner Is...

Tiny Tiny RSS. Yes, there's good alternatives (NewsBlur comes to mind), and yes, setting up a server is plenty of work. I wouldn't do this if replacing Reader was my only goal.

But I've long considered setting up a server for myself anyhow. There are a number of reasons, but perhaps the main one is simply that I want to learn the basics of setting up a server, and there's no better way to learn than to actually do it. Also, I have a few ideas about what I'd like to do with a server at home.

Also, the shutdown of Reader and some other recent events have made me increasingly aware of just how much I rely on cloud and online services for my daily life, and how vulnerable that makes me. I want to gradually build a back-up system of sorts for my online life; if Flickr, Blogger, Gmail or whatever would become unusable to me I want something under my control to replace it.

I've already taken the first steps of setting up a (virtual) server at home, making it accessible from the outside, and setting up Tiny Tiny RSS. It is working, and I'm quite happy. This will be the topic of the next post.

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