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The 1st of July, 2013, might be a Monday like any other for most people. But for those internet news hounds who rely on Google Reader it’ll be a dark, sad day.
Google Reader is the web service that popularised RSS (really simple syndication). Before it came along the best way to get news, via RSS, was by manually adding feed URLs into a feed reader, or searching for feeds using aggregators like FeedBurner. On the 13th of March, 2013, Google unceremoniously announced that it would be pulling the plug on Reader. Despite the general consensus that it was hugely popular, the company simply said that Reader had seen declining use in the months leading to its announcement.
The internet, being the internet, cried foul. How dare the best source, and tool, for news be culled by the very company that represents information freedom?
Google, of course, remained mum. But smart people, like those at Feedly, saw an opportunity to make a big impact. Soon after the news of Reader’s imminent demise web companies jumped on the RSS bandwagon. Companies that relied on the Reader API would go on to build their own, and those that already had one added more features.
With just a few days before the plug gets pulled on the most popular RSS reader, time is running out for those who still rely on Google Reader. Thankfully, there are now a number of options available to those folks, and come July, they’ll be able to continue scanning headlines like nothing ever happened.
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Feedly me, see more
If you’re looking for a straight-up replacement for Google reader, look no further than Feedly. This web app and feed aggregator has been around since 2008, and now enjoys massive presence on both web browsers as well as mobile phones.
48 hours after Google announced it would be canning Reader, Feedly saw 500 000 new users join its service. Existing users had trouble accessing the site thanks to the influx of newcomers. Three weeks later Feedly announced that the number of new users since Google’s announcement totalled 3-million. At last count that number had passed 8-million, and Feedly indexes more than 25-million feeds, daily.
What makes it so good? Well, the engineers at Feedly have been listening closely to requests from users who’ve migrated from Reader. Feedly’s web app now closely emulates a lot of the functionality Reader offers, and existing Reader users can import their data, too. The latter is devastatingly simple: simply visit cloud.feedly.com, enter your Google account details, and it imports your Google Reader configuration. Within minutes you’ll be up and running, as you were on Reader, with more functionality.
Some have pointed out that with Feedly being free (and free of advertising) there’s still the risk of having the rug pulled from under our feet. Just like Google did. But there’s also talk of a Pro version, but nothing has been mentioned by the company, yet.
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Aol-so in the running
Aol – yes, the company previously known as America Online – took everybody by surprise when it announced its RSS reader, mere days ahead of Reader’s shutdown. Simply called Aol Reader, it follows the superb Alto mail client, another of the company’s efforts in the new web app era.
Aol offers all the functionality Google refugees would want, and it also borrows a few features from Feedly and co. The familiar column view is there, along with options to choose between darker and lighter themes. What’s missing, though, are easy options for importing your Google data – something Feedly readily offers – and users will be left to manually add any RSS feeds. Aol also doesn’t offer a searchable list of feeds, one of the reasons that Google Reader took off in the first place.
Thankfully the site is fast, and that’s what people will appreciate the most. With thousands of headlines to sift through, each day, a web app that chugs along will sign its own death certificate.
It’s currently in beta, though, and any users signing up now will be met with a screen telling them that the beta phase has reached capacity. Sign up to be notified, though. It’s also worth noting that Aol, the media giant that it is, has the resources to pull off a successful, long term project like this. There’s already an embedded banner ad in Aol Reader, and it’s a sacrifice worth making if it’ll keep the app around for a while longer.
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Blurring the headlines
It ain’t pretty, so let’s just get that out of the way. The three-pane layout is customisable letting you adjust the viewport for websites, your feed pane, and the article pane. Where other readers deliver plain text and pictures, NewsBlur renders the original site: that is, clicking on an article in your reading list loads the originating page in full. Presumably this way you don’t lose any of the context – after all, some sites have gorgeous layouts.
Power users will really appreciate the shortcut keys, too. Hit the O key and an article you’ve highlighted opens in a background tab, while J and K keys can be used to flip between newer and older stories, respectively. It’s also possible to make NewsBlur learn what kind of articles you like and it’ll push those to the top the pile. Like Feedly it has an intelligent search function that lets you add feeds by key words, rather than needing to enter a feed URL.
Free accounts are available, though limited to 64 news feeds. Sadly, the company’s suspended sign-ups for new accounts – presumably to deal with the server load from Reader refugees – but you can subscribe for $2 (around R22) a month. With its competitors being free, that might make it less attractive, but it does bring peace of mind associated with paying for a product.
There are also mobile apps available for NewsBlur. If you have an iOS or Android device you can use those to keep track of saved stories across your desktop and mobile, to ensure you don’t miss news while out and about.
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The three services above are just the best of the online bunch, but they are by no means the only ones on offer. Digg – yes, the same Digg that used to be a message board – was one of the first companies to say that it’ll offer a Google Reader replacement. That was three months ago, and on the 26th of June the company will debut a public beta version of Digg Reader. It’s been in closed beta since last week, and things must have been tough for those who had first access: it’s still buggy, and some parts don’t quite work right just yet. Still, Digg has promised that it’ll continue plugging away at its Google Reader clone. With the a deadline of July 1st, who knows whether everything will be ready for the big day.
Digg also has something going for it: at the moment it’s a social news aggregator, and the kind of data that comes with that is not the sort of stuff you can buy. Content curators get to push stuff to the top of the pile, and that’ll make it a lot easier for new users to get started. Why sift through millions of RSS feeds when the good stuff is getting delivered to your inbox by the community?
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There’s not denying that Google Reader has become the gold standard for RSS readers. Sadly, the internet’s reliance on Google – a company we see as almost infallible – has put it in a tricky situation. Applications like Reeder, available for Mac OS X, iPad, and iPhone, will still see updates, their developers promise. But the uncertainty around which web platform to adopt remains. Reeder and its ilk could very well become alternative front ends for Feedly, which has already opened its API up to many popular applications.
Feedly’s generosity also brings good news to developers who want to seize the moment and offer a new kind of RSS reader experience. Google’s exit has shown that there is definitely a market for easily consuming information from RSS feeds. And it doesn’t have to be a freeapp, either. Android users can grab an app called Press (R31 on Google Play), which will happily plug into your Feedly account. As long as there’s cross-compatibility with all of the new web services showing up, app developers can cash in, while not running the risk of obsolescence – something that Google has reminded us is a very real risk.