13 October 2005

Google Reader

Google has been relentless in developing internet applications, and the latest to enter the realm of public beta is Google Reader. Google Reader is an online newsfeed aggregator, that allows one to turbocharge their web browsing experience. It's Google's foray into a crowded market of RSS or Atom readers.

What the heck is RSS or Atom and why should I care? I wish not to get technical here, but when you point your web browser at an internet site, underneath the seams, it fetches a slew of source code in HTML format that your browser program then takes and renders a suitable display presentation for you. Many sites, including most news sites and blogs also offer a sitefeed, that is arranged in a much simpler format. Typically, it's a short list of less than a dozen items, with a title, link, and descriptive summary (or full article text) — an RSS/Atom aggregator then takes this universal formatted sitefeed and allows one to skim through reams of web sources, with the option to fire the browser at the full page sitting behind the summary feed item. What are the advantages of this method of grokking the world wide web?

  • One can hit all of the internet sites they frequent in a quicker and much more efficient fashion. And it's plain which items are newly added and which are those already read.

  • Access and content display is much faster, since all the garbage is culled off, and you're only left with the "meat" of what you want. Some feeds only offer a headline, some only lead paragraph(s) of an article, but others (including most of the popular blogging software offerings) include the entire contents of an article. No waiting for 212 images to load in your browser, or for a giant table to render properly.

  • If an item is of interest, your newsreader allows you to simply click to the source immediately, moving your browser to that particular web page. Sort of the equivalent of speed reading, it's speed surfing.

  • Some aggregators permit you to view newsfeeds for all of the sites you subscribe to in chronological order, offering a hotlist of all the new items added to the sites you're most interested in.

Now, back to Google Reader. I've been using RSS feeds for a while now, and even here on the home page, you'll note Yahoo! headlines and local Arizona headlines that are just RSS newsfeeds. I've written server side processes to cull headlines from notable sites and used client programs on my Powerbook. But I've long wished for the available time to develop my own internet, server located newsreader. Google reader is the best reader I've used to date, at least in terms of conceptual useability, acknowledging that is a beta product in dire need of refinement and added enhancements.

How does Google Reader work?

  • Point your browser to www.google.com/reader

  • If you do not already have a Google account, then create one.

  • Add some subscriptions.
    • By using the Search function to find feeds for topics you are interested in.
    • By entering them manually by clicking on Subscriptions tab, then Add, and then copying and pasting in the URL of a site feed.
    • By importing a collection of site feeds, typically stored in a file that has a .opml extension. You can find the OPML files of others on the web — or you can start with Technorati top 100 blogs OPML.
    • Add a bookmarklet to your browser toolbar that will enable you to auto-add a feed from any site you visit (provided that site offers a RSS/Atom/XML feed).

  • The reading panel on the left will contain items for all your feeds and you can click on the Subscriptions tab to view a list of subscribed newsfeeds where you can restrict the display to just those feeds for a specific site.

  • The main content panel contains links that permit you to view newsfeeds for that site, or to send your browser to the web site or individual item link.

Why am I so enamored with Google Reader whereas other newsreaders have left me lacking?

  • Internet based reader means that with my Google account, I can be at any computer, and these days, I'm may be on three different machines on a daily basis. All of my read and unread items are flagged properly, and my subscriptions list follows me from machine to machine.

  • Can be keyboard driven, and any user interface that grants me power to control by keys instead of mouse is a total plus for an old school hacker like me.

  • Chronological panel display of all feeds that easily allows for viewing of items added since I last fired up Google Reader.

  • Integrated with Google search.

That being said, Google Reader is far from a polished product and in the first few days of its rollout, usage has encountered some critical performance issues.

  • Subscriptions tab inoperable or takes excessive time to load. This will be an application destroyer if not addressed.

  • When scrolling through reading panel, the display load and fetch stalls, sometimes to never recover at all.

  • More keyboard shortcuts — if you drive by keyboard, it would be nice to be able to switch back and forth from the reading list to subscription list, and perhaps have a hotkey for adding a feed. Let's say [a] for adding a feed, [v] for visiting the source link for a feed, [u] for subscription panel, and [e] for reading panel.

  • Ability to search for text within only my feeds. Come on, this is an application built by a internet search company.

I will continue to hammer on Google Reader, and it is my hope that it will improve.


Also desirable: The ability to mark all as read, in cases where you just want to catch up everything. Right now it's a pain if I neglected Reader for a week and want to resume use without reading every post marked as new.

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