) announced that its Google Reader feature would be discontinued as
of July 1, the outpouring of rage was loud and immediate. Still, it
barely registered as an Internet phenomenon. Millions of people
were annoyed, but a billion more said, in effect, "Huh? What's a
Which makes it interesting that
) are falling all over each other to rush out a replacement for a
feature that Google apparently decided could never achieve critical
The early judgment of tech writers is that both efforts are likely
to be a mess, but that conclusion is premature to say the least.
AOL's version went up hours ago as a
, and Facebook's news reader is literally just a rumor.
Other smaller companies, like the producers of venture
capital-funded Flipboard, are scrambling for attention for their
existing or brand-new alternatives to Google Reader. They are ready
and eager, they say, to accept converts from Google Reader.
All of the above efforts, up to and including Google Reader, seem
doomed to be niche services beloved only by news junkies. Until
somebody does it right, that is. And then the "news reader,"
probably under another, better name, will be the personal front
page that everybody uses all the time to check what's new and
what's useful on the Internet.
First, a little plain English about the news reader.
A news reader picks up the latest updates from any or all of the
sites you like to check regularly, and compiles them in a format
that you can easily browse through. Some of them are just lists of
capsule descriptions and links, while others try for a more
visually attractive magazine-style format.
News readers are currently compiled from RSS feeds. RSS stands for
Rich Site Summary, but is sometimes translated as Really Simple
Syndication. It is a Really Annoying Acronym invented by techies to
make you feel they understand things that baffle you. (The same
people invent obscure terms for flipping a switch off and then back
So, an RSS feed is a list of brief summaries - really just the top
paragraph of a text file - compiled automatically as new entries
are published to a site, and then emailed to subscribers. It alerts
them that there's something new, and gives them a direct link to
it. Everybody's got an RSS feed, including this site.
A "news reader" automatically compiles a user's personal selection
of RSS feeds into a single standard format, so that the user can
browse through the latest.
You can imagine what a really great design team could do with that
concept. In its current form, an RSS feed is usually a plain
vanilla text file, but there's no law against capturing images or
any other multimedia.
The ultimate news reader app might, say, take a bunch of feeds
selected by a user and automatically format them into a kind of
personal and constantly updated "home page." Ideally, yours might
include local traffic conditions, a few stock quotes from your
portfolio, some breaking news headlines, and a picture of your
niece's graduation, fresh off your Facebook feed.
Even if you don't use one, you can see why this example - or even
the plain vanilla flavors currently available - could be different
and better than depending on a search engine or your Facebook
friends to select what you see from across the entire Internet.
Using a good reader would be a lot easier than clicking to a dozen
or so sites to see if anything's new, and still missing the best
stuff because it's somewhere else.
We all could use a great news reader right now, but there's another
reason why Facebook and AOL have taken it up as an urgent mission,
and that is the move to mobile devices.
They figure that the first one to produce a mobile news reader app
that gets widely adopted will win the biggest and most loyal mobile
audience, and they're probably right.
This week AOL launched a beta version of its AOL Reader, with an
image-rich format on a minimalist background that is getting some
reviews from Wired
, among others.
Other reviewers sneer because it's a (free) ad-supported feature,
or just because it's AOL.
It must be said that tech writers are not the best source of
consumer software reviews for the rest of us. From the look of the
early beta version, AOL deserves credit for going well beyond the
plain text RSS feed.
Facebook also appears to be going out on a limb. As mentioned, the
Facebook Reader project is literally just a rumor, although it is a
very widespread one that has achieved extensive coverage in the
business and technology media.
, says that Facebook has dismissed the RSS standard altogether,
concluding that it's a "niche product" that won't attract the kind
of mainstream audience Facebook wants for its news reader. It also
may be developing its reader strictly as a mobile app.
Unfortunately, AOL's beta version tells us nothing about how its
reader will look or work on mobile devices. And that's the rub.
Smartphones have taken us back into the Dark Ages of the Internet
in some ways. They are slow, since the 4G network is mythical for
most of us. The screens are tiny, and the text is pinhead-sized.
The pages are clumsily reworked from the original PC screen
versions. The sound is tinny.
And this is what most of the world will be using from now on.
So, the real question is whether Facebook or AOL or someone else is
going to design a news reader that works on a desktop or on mobile,
and looks as consumer-friendly as, say, the cover of
magazine, circa 1989.
If you're interested in trying a news reader, a number of the
leading candidates are
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