Death of the RSS reader

Death of the RSS reader

Summary: 2006 will be the year the RSS reader dies out as a separate, standalone -- an event that will signify the success of RSS as a mainstream technology.

TOPICS: Browser

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I've just realized that 2005 was the year I stopped using my RSS reader. I expect it was for many other people too. What's more, I'm willing to predict that 2006 will be the year that the RSS reader effectively dies out as a separate, standalone application — instead it will become just another API service, as foreshadowed by Google's plans for its reader.

There are, after all, many far more productive ways of staying up-to-date with the information feeds that matter to you,A surprising number of people have confessed to me they've secretly stopped too. whether or not they happen to use RSS as a syndication format. You can add them to a personalized start page from the likes of Yahoo! or Microsoft. You can go to sites that aggregate feeds on a specific topic into a single web page (or to news aggregation sites such as Google News or Yahoo! News). You can track them very conveniently right in your Firefox browser, using the Live Bookmarks function, or a third-party extension. When Windows Vista comes along, you'll be able to read them within desktop applications, or on the Windows desktop itself — the latter of course is something you can do now using a widget from Yahoo! or some other provider. Many more alternatives will surface during 2006.

I do several of the above, which is why I haven't visited Bloglines, my (hosted, of course) RSS reader of choice, in several weeks — or maybe months, I can't remember. And I'm not alone in abandoning the habit of opening up my RSS reader every day. I've come across a surprising number of people recently — the sort of people you'd expect to be following a lot of RSS feeds — who've confessed to me that they've secretly stopped too. There just isn't enough time to scan all those feeds any more. The only habit I keep up is that I occasionally add a new feed to my reader when I come across an especially interesting one. For example, I recently added TechCrunch — only to discover that I'd already added it some time ago, but hadn't fired up my reader in the meantime to actually read it. In fact, it must be almost a year since I was last fully up-to-date with all the feeds I subscribe to.

I know there are a lot of RSS junkies out there who can't imagine starting the day without a deep trawl through the contents of their reader, and then repeat the process several times throughout the day (and indeed some of them subscribe to this blog, for which I thank you). But although they may have influential voices — especially in the blogosphere — they're not representative of the rest of the population.

Earlier this year, Yahoo! published a survey it had commissioned on usage and awareness of RSS (PDF) . Among its findings were these striking statistics:

    • Awareness of RSS is quite low among Internet users. 12% of users are aware of RSS, and 4% have knowingly used RSS.
    • 27% of Internet users consume RSS syndicated content on personalized start pages (eg, My Yahoo!, My MSN) without knowing that RSS is the enabling technology.
    • Even tech-savvy 'Aware RSS Users' prefer to access RSS feeds via user-friendly, browser-based experiences (e.g., My Yahoo!, Firefox, My MSN).

You see, at least seven out of eight RSS users don't realize they use RSS. And that's the way it ought to be. Technology really only enters the mainstream when people don't notice it's there anymore. RSS has made some notable advances during 2005, but the most important among them have integrated it more seamlessly into the fabric of popular platforms and applications. The forthcoming decline of RSS readers is thus a sign of the success of RSS rather than any failure.

Of course there will always be a few die-hard RSS geeks who insist on the raw experience they get from tinkering with feeds, the same way some people still like to build their own PCs or service their own automobiles. The rest of us will turn to more complete services that do the hard work for us. As Jon Udell observed earlier this year after a heated Gillmor Gang discussion about attention: "Regulating the demand on our attention is what we crave." The problem with feed readers is that, although they help us to organize our information feeds, they don't address the root problem of reducing the amount of information we have to take in. For that, we need so much more: aggregation, filtering, deduplication and probably a bit of old-fashioned human editing as well, all delivered with intuitive, drag-and-drop simplicity into applications that help us organize and respond to the information that matters to us.

Topic: Browser

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • Agreed, RSS readers *need* to die

    Mr. Wainewright is one hundred percent correct in this article. The RSS reader as we know it needs to die, and its functionality needs to be absorbed into other applications, whether they be Web sites that present you with the feeds, desktop applications that also have RSS functionality, or some sort of desktop application/widget that integrates seamlessly into the OS.

    Personally, I don't subscribe to RSS feeds for the exact reasons that Mr. Wainewright describes. Indeed, I don't even have any applications capable of consuming RSS, unless you count the copy of Firefox that I have installed for browser compatability testing. There is actually a very simple reason for this: every website that I care to keep track of is kind enough to send me periodic emails with the most recent updates. Why would I bother to install yet another application, when the copy of Outlook that I always have running anyways accomplishes the exact same goal?

    I would love to have RSS functionality built into Outlook, but since every site (or nearly every site) that I care to follow that closely can send email updates, there is no need for me to find a downloadable Outlook plugin. I breifly looked into simply writing my own Outlook plugin (I'd like to catch up with .Net 2.0 anyways), but the lack of a standard feed format scared me away from the project.

    At the end of the day, I see less and less difference between RSS and the old Usenet system. Like Mr. Wainewright's experience with RSS, I stopped keeping up with Usenet once I switched from Outlook Express to Outlook for my email, because I didn't want to bother starting OE just for newsgroups; once I got behind, it wasn't even worth my time to try to catch up again.

    To be honest, I don't think that RSS baked into Web sites is such a hot idea, mainly because the interface for doing so would be a royal pain to use. Maybe with AJAX technologies, but you would still need to have one browser open to your RSS site, and drag/drop the link from the other site. To me, that is a show-stopper right there. A slightly better choice would be to have the subscribe functionality built into a browser plugin, like the Google toolbar or Yahoo! toolbar, which would then send the subscription information to my website of choice via a behind-the-scenes process. It would be even more useful if, instead of sending the information to just one site, would allow any site (on an "approved sites" list, of course) to read that same information. This way my RSS feeds could follow me from site-to-site.

    Justin James
  • thunderbird

    I use Thunderbird and Firefox to read my RSS. I find it nearly transparent.
  • Totally agree

    Standalone RSS is dead.
  • Easier to avoid.

    An old expression:
    "When I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you."

    When I want information I'll go to the site on which it's aggregated.
    I never set up an RSS feed. I stop those news update emails, if necessary classifying them as spam to make them go away.

    The solution to getting too much information is blocking off the excessive information before it gets to you.
    Anton Philidor
  • inflexible

    I've started and dropped out of using RSS aggregators a couple of times and the reason is always the same.

    "subscribe" / "unsubscribe" is too inflexible to track my shifting interest. One week I want to see everything X says. And I'm willing to check out Y only once every couple of days. But three weeks later, Y is on a roll and I simply don't care what X is up to.

    RSS readers don't handle this well. I subscribe to someone when I'm interested and then they're unread posts clutter up the aggregator when I'm off them. But I don't want to completely unsubscribe, I just want them to fade into the background and not have the aggregator nag me about them.

    Maybe there is a technical solution and a new interface or some awareness of my current focus of attention within the aggregator might solve it. Or maybe the problem is too hard. Nothing is every going to be as flexible is me simply visiting the sites I care about when I want.

    An overly excited tech reporter couldn't contain himself when he showed me the NSCA Mosaic MS Windows based browser back in 1994.

    As the R&D guy for the Dow Jones flagship Ottaway newspaper, I spent the I spent the next year trying to convince the publisher that the WWW would be "big" and change life as we know it.

    Like so many from the publishing industry, he saw the WWW/Internet as the "CB radio of the 90s". At least the Production Manager "got it" when she saw AOL as superior to Compuserve and Prodigy.

    Why all this ancient newspaper talk? Well, journalists and other newspaper persons still don't get it.

    What will die is the generic web browser! [and hopefully XML, the worst non-innovation ever].

    The next-gen RSS reader WILL BE the newspaper of tomorrow. This future RSS reader will accept RSS feeds that look like clean name:value pairs, without ANY < > nonsense.

    These feeds will follow you everywhere, through the wireless earth net. Your next-gen iPOD receiver will play them for you, your next-gen cell phone will read them for you.

    You will subscribe to them through any device that can send text, like SMS. The difference is that you will not subscribe to feeds per se, but you will provide a textual description of who you are and what you are trying to accomplish.

    Feed generators will create the verbal network of key words that filter exactly the kinds of feeds you need to make decision.

    Don't be believe it? Just wait ...

    Pier Johnson

    Just as no one compels you to read the entire Sunday NYT, there is no one who forces you to subscribe or read 5,000 feeds!
  • MobileSpoon

    iPad made me come back to using RSS Readers.
    The one I'm currently using is NewsRack for iPad. I think it's the best one: