On Feed Wrangler

I've been a Google Reader user for nearly five years. My RSS app of choice during that time has been Reeder, which is available for both iOS and OS X. Together, these apps and this service have been my primary means of keeping up with the news and discovering new and interesting things to read.

When Google announced that it would be discontinuing Reader in July, I began my hunt for a replacement. I grouped potential candidates into three categories: non-RSS solutions, free RSS solutions, and paid RSS solutions.

Non-RSS Solutions

Google Reader has more or less monopolized the RSS reader market over the last several years. It's sudden termination does not bode well for the technology. It wouldn't be unreasonable to consider leaving RSS behind entirely when searching for a Reader replacement. If this is the road you decide to follow, there are two obvious options. The first is Twitter, which has become the go-to information stream for many web users. The second is Flipboard, which pulls stories from a number of different sources to form a social magazine of sorts.

Although either or both might meet your needs, they didn't meet mine. Although I've been a Twitter user since 2008 and believe strongly in the platform, it serves a different purpose than RSS for me. I use Twitter to update myself on what is happening now. I use RSS to collect pieces from trusted news sources and catch up on them later. For all of its strengths, Twitter isn't built for that. Neither, for that matter, is Flipboard, which is also extremely time-sensitive in how it displays information. In addition, I've found that Flipboard too often shows me pieces based on what it thinks I'll like or what my friends like more than it does based on my actual stated interests. It's a wonderful application, but it's also ill-suited to this particular purpose. Its competitors (Pulse, etc.) suffer from the same flaws.

Bottom line: I'm not ready to give up on RSS.

Free RSS Solutions

Having determined I needed RSS in my life, I sought out available free solutions. There are a number of services that simply clone the Google Reader API, such as CommaFeed or the Old Reader, but they come with shoddy app support at best and don't offer much in the way of improvements over Mountain View's solution (which was itself far from perfect). More promising (and popular) is Feedly, which previously operated as a stylish Google Reader interface and now offers its own backend. Perhaps more than any other service, Feedly has benefitted from Google giving Reader the boot.

I've tried Feedly several times, most recently just two weeks ago, and have always walked away disappointed. It's a reliable syncing service with some very attractive apps, but the deeper I dug into it, the less pleased I was.

I have three major complaints about Feedly. First, its design often looks nicer than it feels. This is especially true of its iPad app, which does a great job creating a memorable swipe-based interface but a less-great job at allowing users to navigate its settings and edit feed information. It's not bad, but it's busy.

Second, its API is closed, meaning that the only Feedly apps I could use are the ones it makes - apps with which I have already expressed some dissatisfaction. If the API allowed for third parties like Reeder to use Feedly as a syncing service, the appeal might be stronger.

Third, its business model worries me. Google is a company that can afford to give away nearly anything for free because its ad business makes gargantuan sums of money. Even then, it didn't see the justification for supporting a non-revenue generating RSS reader. Feedly's model to date has been to pour much more time, energy, and money into its product and then give it away for free. That's not exactly sustainable. The company recently announced the move to a freemium model, and will soon offer a paid version of the product with extra features. How many of these features will be useful remains to be seen, and I'm skeptical that enough users will buy in to subsidize the free part of the business. Even if they do, there are enough problems with Feedly to keep me away from it.

Not encouraging. Even free services need to generate money if they're going to survive. After losing Google Reader, I'm not ready to place a lot of faith in a service that hasn't decided how to make money, especially when it's a central component of my workflow. Maybe if it was built by a trust source that I knew was going to be around, I could take the plunge again, but for the moment, I'm saying no to free RSS.

Paid RSS Solutions

What I'm about to say may be offputting to some of you who grew up in the Internet age, but it makes sense to me and my old-fashioned sensibilities: I like paying for things. Free services always come with hidden costs, which are often paid in information or loss or privacy. Exchanging money for a good or service, by contrast, brings a certain level of transparency to the table, in addition to helping sustain the seller's business. That's not to say that I started my journey into new RSS services with the intention of paying. However, I wasn't going to rule out paying on general principle.

The first paid service I tried was Feedbin, which charges $2 per months and integrates with Reeder for iPhone. I played around with it for a few days, but could never really make it work for my purposes. It doesn't have a great iPad presence (although that should change when Reeder for iPad hits 2.0 this summer), and its sharing options are opaque to say the least. Users have to setup sharing accounts themselves using customized commands - a far cry from the "It Just Works" mentality I'm looking for. In addition, I found the web interface extremely busy, like it was trying to be a native app inside of a browser window (a stylistic choice that almost always leaves me cold). None of these would keep me from Feedbin, but together, they're too much for me to tolerate on a daily basis.



Feed Wrangler

Which brings me to Feed Wrangler.

David Smith is a talented developer with a history of building exceptional apps. Check the Weather for iOS is my go-to weather app, and I've been consistently impressed with the effort he's put into it. When announced he was building a Google Reader alternative, I sat up and took notice.

Feed Wrangler is built for the browser, although there is a simple but respectable iOS app available. It's not full-featured, but the features it does have are exceptionally well-done. I especially like the way it handles saving to read-it-later services like Instapaper. While the clean, almost Spartan design might not wow anyboy, it also doesn't get in the way of the content. Syncing is fast and reliable, and at $18.99 per year, it's affordable to those for whom RSS is indispensible. Best of all, David has announced that he'll be opening up the Feed Wrangler API in the next few weeks, meaning that there's a high likelihood of integration into apps like Reeder, Mr. Reader, Newsify, and more.

What really sold me on Feed Wrangler, though, was what David wrote in his announcement when explaining his pricing decision:

Feed Wrangler will be a paid, subscription based service. I believe the reason that Google turned its back on Reader and left its users hanging is that they were users not customers. I’m not interested in building a platform designed to attract as many users as possible and then work out how to sustain it later. I want to instead build something that is sustainable from Day 1. I want my customers to feel confident that they can expect this to be around long into the future. I want to build a relationship with them and make something they really, really love.

In the wake of Reader's termination, this was exactly what I was looking for, and I have zero doubt that David is going to pour his heart and soul into this product.

What Works For Me

Feed Wrangler is the service that works best for me, and I'm happy to pay for it. There might be another option out there that does the job for you, and if so, then that's what you should use. There are two other solutions on the horizon that interest me: Black Pixel's revamped version of NetNewsWire and Digg's upcoming RSS reader, which will likely integrate with the recently-acquired Instapaper and other Betaworks properties. For the moment, though, I'm hooked on Feed Wrangler, and suspect that if you're like me, you will be too.