The recent terrible redesign of Google Reader has gotten me thinking about what I’d really like from an RSS reader. While I use Google Reader when I’m not on my Mac, my preferred RSS client is NetNewsWire. Web apps are great, but I like the integration Mac and iOS clients provide. But NNW hasn’t changed much in years, and the Web has. So here’s what I think I’d like to see in an RSS reader.
Multiple platforms. Mac, iPhone, and iPad versions are more important to me than a Web version, but if there is a Web version, it needs to very slick. Google Reader, aside from its ugly whitewash, works very smoothly.
Syncing between clients. Google’s undocumented API is the only game in town right now. Ideally there’s be something else there, maybe even a decentralized one. Maybe let us use a choice of hosting the sync database on our own server, or DropBox, or Amazon EC2.
PuSH. Not every site pings a PubSubHubbub server, but if a site does push its updates, I should see them immediately.
Those are all fairly conventional features that any client right now can support. I think RSS can go further.
Person-focused. Right now RSS readers are very site-focused. You subscribe to a site’s feed and read posts from that site. Why not let me link to an OPML file in my site’s page alongside my RSS feed that describes other sites I contribute to? When you subscribe to my site, you’d have an option of just adding that blog, or adding me. You’d get my photos, blog, contributions to other sites, etc. If I add a site down the road, you’d be have a chance to add that site, too, because the RSS reader would monitor my OPML list of feeds.
Why? Because (and forgive me for going all Dave Winer for a minute) I think RSS had a chance to do what Facebook did, which is give you one place to see what all of your friends are up to. Facebook does it by making everyone sign up for a Facebook account and post all their thoughts, links, photos, etc. on Facebook. But we should be able to do that on our own sites without donating our work to any one company. Let me post my photos on Flickr, my short thoughts on Twitter, longer thoughts on Tumblr, etc., and give my friends a way to get all that stuff in one place. The RSS reader could provide all of that, except for…
Comments. When I first heard about it when Google Buzz launched, the Salmon Protocol sounded great but seemingly never went anywhere. The lack of a good way to deal with comments has really held social stuff on the Web back. I’m sure there are dozens of discussions going on right now on threads where I’ve left a comment that I’ve simply forgotten about. Ideally there’d be a way for me to find and track those comments, but there isn’t. It’d need to be easy and standardized and built into messageboards and blog engines, which is asking a lot, but it would increase the utility of every site’s members across the entire Web. I don’t think anyone really likes getting an email every time someone comments on a post somewhere, and not every blog system even does that reliably. But I’d love a way to follow a post in an RSS reader, and a way to post comments back to that site right from the reader.
Context-aware views. The old (well, post early Blogger) paradigm for blog posts was that every post has a title and a body. Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter all allow/encourage posts without titles, but at present most RSS clients don’t know what to do with them. Aside from titles, though, there’s nothing very different about a Twitter stream than a blog feed with very short posts. Twitter itself could be replicated entirely by a blogging engine that has one text entry field with a character limit and uses PuSH. I like Twitter a lot, but I don’t like that it’s a closed off system run by one company. I’d love a way for people to write short thoughts on any system they prefer–Facebook or Google+ for example–and I’d be able to read them all together with Tweets. This may not seem so important now, but Twitter could easily make a policy change that makes the product unpalatable to use (like inserting links to products in our tweets perhaps). An RSS reader that’s already showing me your blog and your photos could show me your 140-char limit mini-posts, but it’d need to know enough to display them without a title, maybe add in links to @usernames, etc. And if someone cracks comment syncing, one could reply to a Twitter post from another microblog engine and know the person would see that post.
To recap a bit, I think the only hard thing here is comment syncing. (And, admittedly, easier said than done, and there are smart people working on it with few practical results.) Otherwise, plain old RSS and good design could do most of all of this, which is, I guess, to transform the RSS reader into the dashboard for the entire Web. Add all your friends to it, and go there to see everything they’re up to without having to worry about who’s on what social network. Pick the network you like best, and trust that your friends will be able to find you. Maybe the Google Reader thing will excite someone to work on some of this. I only wish I had the time/skills myself.