Monday, July 1, 2013

Goodnight, Sweet Prince (Google Reader Post)

March 13, 2013 was a sad day for me. On that fateful day Google announced they were retiring my favorite Google App, the sweet prince, Google Reader. I actually went through the stages of grief.

Denial: Google was joking, right? How could they close Google Reader?
Anger: You're kidding me! They can't close Google Reader! I use that thing everyday!
Bargaining: Maybe if I a sign enough petitions, Google will decide to keep my favorite service up and running. 100,000 might even get Obama to comment on this tragedy.
Depression: How am I going to learn about all my library and canine related news? Am I going to be required to visit each website, separately, like an animal? What is this? 1995?
Acceptance: Fine, I guess I should start to see what alternatives are out there...

That only took about 2 months, trials of many of the alternatives and changing my daily behavior. I think I'm almost there, so let me share what I've learned.

For those who do not know, Google Reader was an RSS aggregator. It was a magical place, where you could store and read all your RSS feeds, regardless of the orignal source. Want to have stories from the New York Times mixed with PhD comics on a single page? RSS aggregation is how you do that.

Many of our academic databases and catalogs provide RSS feeds. These feeds could be for search results, new items, most frequently cited items, journal subscriptions and many others. One of my favorite ways to use this feature was to add journal level feeds to a folder called "Library -- Academic Stuff." (That's a proper name, if I've ever heard one.) I would have a folder populated with articles from Library Hi-Tech, Library Trends, Library Technology ReportsCommunications in Information Literacy... It was a great way to keep track of library literature. (That includes your favorite blog, ilove-instruction.) Especially since most of these are not published daily, you won't get bombarded with articles. For the record, most of those are from our EBSCO and ProQuest subscriptions.  If I am off campus, the link would direct me to our proxy server and then onto the article. I am able to view the title and the abstract from my RSS reader.

What I needed from an RSS
I use RSS all the time. Be it on my iPhone/iPad, work laptop or home laptop, this is a tool that has a huge impact on my life. Loading up my feeds is my 21st century equivalent of reading the paper with coffee. My requirements were simple -- or so I thought.
  • Be cloud based and have an iOS app. This will help me keep all my feeds in sync and I would not need to read the same article twice
  • Don't be ugly
  • Keep in sync between the app and cloud interfaces
  • Have the same keyboard shortcuts
  • List view
  • Free and/or clearly marked advertisements 
Here are some Google Reader alternatives and my impressions
NetVibes -- This one is slightly different than the others on this list. Instead of being an RSS aggregator, it pitches itself as a dashboard of information. You can load your Facebook timeline, Twitter feed, as well as RSS feeds from various websites. The web interface is pretty smooth and neat. I especially liked how the developers had a sense of humor with feeds with post dates in the future. It says, "Doc are you telling me you built a time machine?"

On the negative side, it does not have an iOS app. It does have a web interface, but that will not show me a badge notification for unread feeds. For me and how I want to use RSS, that was a deal killer. If they develop an app down the road, I will be looking at them again. The keyboard shortcuts are close, but not exactly the same. (I like to view one long list of feeds and use the spacebar to move down the list.)

Pulse -- This was another promising app. It is very visually appealing. It uses the magazine look to present articles. It also lets you use your social media accounts as sources of feeds. You are able to quickly post the story to your LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter account. It is also very easy to email the article to friends.

This one also did not flip the bill for me. The organization side felt off. I wanted to view one single aggregated feed from all my sources. Pulse wants to break down each source and display the articles attached to the source. When using RSS, I want to be able to create my own newspaper with sources pulled into one single place. It also does not display badge notifications or unread counts on the app or web interface.

Digg Reader -- Digg Reader is promising and I look forward to seeing what they can do with a bit more time. It is simple and clean. My spacebar keyboard shortcut is the same. One feature I really appreciate is their popular articles section. This is an algorithm that looks at your feeds and pulls out the most popular articles. It's great for when you only have a few minutes and want to see what's new. It is visually clean and straight forward. Their servers are super fast. 

What was I disappointed to see? Two things: I cannot hide previously read items from the all-items feed and badge notifications do not seem to work on the iOS app or web interface. Given that the team had 90 days and 5 people to create this service, I'm hopeful they will catch up and add these features. I'll be willing to revisit this one in a few months. 

The Old Reader -- I really want to support The Old Reader. They are an indie team that created their service about a year ago. At the time, Google had change Google Reader to incorporate more Google+ and less Google Reader. The kind folks at The Old Reader set about to recreate some Google Reader goodness. I think they have done an excellent job. The look is pretty close to Google Reader, circa 2011. Its keyboard shortcuts are right on. Surprisingly, they announced a partnership with Feeddler, my RSS app of choice on iOS devices. 

The downside is that their servers are slow. I would wait a decent amount of time for feeds to load. Also – I found myself wanted to explore new methods of viewing RSS feeds. It does not have any sort of tile view for articles. You only have title view.

Feedly -- This one seems to be everyones favorite, with good reason. It's clean, straightforward, servers are fast enough, and offers multiple ways to view your feeds. They have a tile and title view. The app I've found that works with Feedly is fantastic. Newsify has really struck a cord with me. It reminds me of a newspaper, which is what I'm finding more desirable than just a title list. (This is not to say I don't want a title view. Each skin has a time and purpose.)

Negatives, there are a few. When I first looked at Feedly it wasn't exactly cloud based. They required you to install a browser plugin. Very recently, they corrected that error. Had they not, I would not consider using the service. I also find the interface a bit bare. It just seems like a gratuitous use of white space. Newsify helps to fix this issue on iOS devices.

Where are we now? 
So, I've evaluated lots of RSS aggregators. The five mentioned above are the top contenders in my mind. Each one has strengths and negatives. It will be up to each one of us to find the one that fulfills our needs best. I am using a combination go Digg Reader, The Old Reader and Feedly w/ Newsify. It's a pain to switch between the three, but I have not found my RSS home yet. 

One good thing is that I was able to reevaluate my sources. Gone are the numerous tech blog websites. I've replaced them with Ars Technica and NPR's All Tech Considered. I've removed a few dead library blogs and replaced them with academic journals. I look forward to being more well read. 

My final score in Google Reader:


  1. Great post, Julius. I feel as if you and I are in the same boat here. I went through the stages as well. Now I use Feedly and enjoy it quite a bit.

    You're right about how RSS helps you manage what you consume. Having organized feeds of information makes me feel like I can keep up with (somewhat) what's going on in the areas of my career and my hobbies. Twitter is fun but it's absolutely no match for the power and organization of RSS.

  2. Thanks, Dan. Google Reader was a big blow to my internet adventures. I remember when they introduced those Google+ features. I was a bit lost with the new UI. It took a while, but I eventually got used to the interface. Looking back, I think the changes were positive if for no other reason than it forced me to use it. (I'm finding using lots of UI's help to keep me fresh with being able to catch on quickly with other services.)

    I am pretty stoked with my new feeds. I went from having 1000+ per day to somewhere around 200+ per day. I can actually pay closer attention to what is coming through the pipes. Just adding the library literature has been a positive effect. In the last few weeks, I've found articles that would have slipped by me.