Given the end of Google Reader, I've been thinking about RSS readers again. Those who know me are aware that it's a subject I've been thinking about for a long time. I've already decided to write my own, and Reporters' Labs Better RSS Reader challenge has me thinking about what an RSS reader should be.
1. An RSS Reader Should be Simple
This is why I don't like magazine style layouts. I can't find what I need. RSS is, without a doubt, one of the more useful ideas to come along, and it's great that people are using it in different ways. For me, though, an RSS reader that's beautiful isn't necessarily better than one that's functional.
2. It Should Aggregate, Not Suggest
Google Reader could suggest feeds based on what you had already subscribed to. Do we really need that? I know I have never used it. Just because I subscribe to XKCD doesn't mean I want to subscribe to SMBC (though I subscribe to both). Feed discovery is an entirely different process from feed aggregation. There are plenty of sites that can help someone find new things to read. Reddit and Hacker News both come to mind.
3. Analytics are Important
This seems to conflict with the first point, but analytics can be incredibly useful. It's nice to know what I'm actual clicking on. It's great to know how long it's been since a feed has been updated. NetNewsWire does a good job of this. It could be better, though. How about indicating what stories are being reported across a wide range of followed sources, and even more importantly, which stories aren't being reported as often. An even more interesting property would be how many sources various sites are referring to for any particular story. If it all leads back to one source, it is most likely bogus, or at least suspect. Obviously, implementing "source tracing" would be non-trivial, but I'm sure it can be done.
4. Social Media Sharing isn't Necessary
I don't need a button to share posts on Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc. If I want to share something, I can load it in my browser very easily. This is just a pet peeve, of course, and I'm sure many will disagree. For me, though, RSS readers are about aggregating, not sharing. I'm also not interested in social features built into RSS Readers. I honestly don't care what feeds my friends are reading. If they find something interesting, they'll probably share it somewhere else. Social content is a distraction and it makes RSS readers less useful. (See point 1).
5. Syncing is of Vital Importance
If I can't check my reader on every device I own, then I'll rarely check my reader. Simple as that.
6. I Have to Have Control Over the Sync Mechanism
The end of Google Reader should be a huge wake up call about depending on a third party. Implementing a syncing system is a problem, of course. If I write a Reader, and I provide a syncing mechanism, then I'm a third party and you shouldn't trust me. Instead, there should be a mechanism where the third party doesn't matter (I'm thinking of things like Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive, etc. If you can sync using all of those services and more, it doesn't matter if one goes away).
Note: I'm not opposed to third party services. This blog uses Disqus, for example. I can always turn on WordPress's internal commenting system if Disqus goes away. When Google Reader goes away that's a more difficult problem to deal with, because at this point, I depend on it for syncing everything. That's a single point of failure, and that's bad.
7. A Reader Should be Open Source
I realize this is a personal choice. I use plenty of software that is closed source, but it's usually because there is no open source option that works as well. (DevonThink and Scrivener come to mind). If Google Reader was open source, there wouldn't be a problem. I could run it on a server of my own, and so could others. Someone could even build a business model around it, if they chose to. There are plenty of open source RSS readers, and many are very good. Many of the good ones use Google Reader to sync, however. Perhaps there should be an open source syncing service. Feedly is working on a clone of Google Reader's syncing API. But what happens if Feedly goes away?
I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface of what an RSS reader should be. These are just the things that came to mind right away. Comment if you wish. I'd really like to see a discussion start about what's wrong with RSS readers, and how we can fix them.