Monday, October 10

Google Reader

Google just launched a new online product, a web-based RSS and Atom feed-reader. If you don't care enough to read the rest of this article, here's my synopsis: Great idea, with absolutely horrible execution. For those who are actually, interested, let's see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

First of all, the idea of "tagging" is cool. Also, Google Reader was able to import my OPML-formatted subscription list from Bloglines without so much as a hiccup. It even applied tags to the feeds based on the folders in which I'd categorized them in Bloglines.

That's where the coolness ends. Once you get your feeds into Google Reader, you have almost no customization about how they are displayed. Your feeds all get thrown into one box, stirred up, and spit back out at you semi-randomly. Even telling the interface to sort items by date doesn't even really work: it seems to display items in the order that Google recognized them, so if the feed is polled and there are 4 new items, they all get clumped together in the interface and not interleaved with items from other feeds.

Secondly, it's not particularly smart about noticing whether items are "new" or not. For some reason, it seemed to always see every item in my local newspaper's feed as "new," so I saw 5 or 6 copies of every feed item (and they were all clumped together, I assume by polling interval, in the manner described above).

But I don't even *want* to view items from all feeds in chronological order. I want to look at feeds from one label at a time (and I wouldn't mind if these were interleaved chronologically, as long as it was by posting date). I know you can do this, but it involves clicking on "Your Subscriptions" and waiting for the page to load, whereas Bloglines's "myblogs" interface allows this by default.

And what's with the backwards feed list? I want to view items oldest first, but there's no option for that. The whole reason for blogs showing up anti-chronologically was so that you could easily see above-the-fold that the page had new items. Now, with feed-readers, we are able to see only unread items, so we should at least be able to see them in their proper order. Sure, some people got used to the backwards order, but there should at least be an option to make it display the other way.

And I don't know how my personal feeds are being cached (for example, Library ELF, Odeo, and My Comic Alert!). A system of viewing other people's reading lists has apparently been unearthed, though it's not operational yet. (The link goes to a conversation on the Google Blogoscoped forums about Google Reader). I don't want people having access to those sorts of things. What about people who view their unread gmail messages via RSS? I'm sure they don't want to share their account details if they've put them right in the feed address.

Also, aside from these usability issues, there's a pretty bad bug (which is sort of a usability issue in and of itself). Items can only be marked as unread if you move from that item to another, like in Outlook's "mark as read when viewing another item" capability. This means that, if only one item is displayed onscreen, there is no way to mark it as read because there are no other feeds items to "move to."

So, the upshot of all this is a set of feature requests:
1. Show labels on the mainpage.
2. If you're going to pretend to sort items by date, interleave the items in multiple feeds by their posting date.
3. Tell us how the polling works, and learn to distinguish items you've seen from ones you haven't. Also, let us choose how to treat updated feed items (like the Ignore/Display as New option for individual feeds in Bloglines).
4. Include an option to show items oldest-first.
5. Tell us how items are cached, and allow some sort of option to remove personal feeds from the globally-accessible cache (like the designation of public/private in Bloglines).
6. Fix the "stays unread when only one item" bug. I suppose you could start the page with no items showing at all, and mark an item as read when the user selects it (the "j" keystroke could automatically select the first item in the list).
7. The "V" keystroke, to view the source article of the current feed item, is an awesome idea. However, it forces a new window to open in Firefox when it's used. Make the method it uses to call the link more standardized so that I can set the browser to automatically pull the source in as a tab in the background.

In general, I love the idea. The system of displaying feeds and allowing keyboard navigation is superb. It's also great that the aspect ratios of images don't get screwed up in blog posts, which is one of Bloglines's great problems. However, there aren't enough customizablity options, and the preferences we're stuck with just don't float my boat. I'll keep using Bloglines for now, but I'll check back often to see when (because I know it's not an "if") the Reader gets better.


You know how you always think of more things to say as soon as you hang up the phone? Well, I just published this entry, but there are another couple of things I forgot to say.

1. You can't unsubscribe from a feed unless an item from that feed is in the viewing pane. (Also, what happens when you unsubscribe? If it was cached, and you were the only subscriber, does that feed URL stay in Google's cache to be found by some other Reader user?
2. Changing the size of the text in the window (i.e., through the TextZoom extension in Firefox), borks the display a little bit. The text wraps wierdly, and the vertical space gets all misaligned. This should be more like Gmail, in that an increase in font size keeps the screen pretty much like it was, just a bit larger.

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The Geek Code desperately needs updating, but in any case here's mine (as of 2010-02-28):

Version: 3.12
GIT/MU d+(-) s:+>: a C++> ULXB++++$ L+++ M++ w--() !O !V P+ E---
W+++ N o++ K? PS PE++ Y+ PGP t !5 X- R- tv+@ b++ DI++++ D--- e*++
h--- r+++ y+++ G+

If you really care about knowing what that all means, you either know the code already, or you can get it decoded for you here.