Interview: Brent Simmons On Ads And Google Reader Sync In NetNewsWire

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NetNewsWire

What, you may be wondering, is going on over at Newsgator?

In a recent statement, the company (which owns NetNewsWire, the desktop RSS reader that pretty much defined the category on OS X) announced a fundamental change to its service: from August 31st, it will switch off the web-based RSS reader known as Newsgator Online for consumer users.

Newsgator’s existing desktop apps, including NetNewsWire, will continue to work. But if you want them to sync with other RSS readers, you’ll have to have a Google Account and do it via Google Reader, which will become your web-based viewer, replacing Newsgator Online.

And all this, of course, has consequences for users of NetNewsWire. A new public beta is out now, which supports the Google-based sync.

It also includes ads, distributed via The Deck. This last change has not been trumpeted with quite as much enthusiasm by Newsgator – advertising is not mentioned at all in the blog post that announced the changes.

Cult of Mac got in touch with NetNewsWire’s developer and mastermind, Brent Simmons, to ask him: what’s going on? And why the ads?

Here’s what he said.

GT: As I understand things, Newsgator will no longer use its own sync platform, but instead will use Google. Newsgator Online (which as I understand it, was the web-interface for feed reading), is dead now, at least as a consumer product. But it lives on as an enterprise product.

BRENT SIMMONS: Correct. NewsGator’s syncing platform still exists, but NetNewsWire and FeedDemon will use Google Reader instead for syncing. NewsGator Online, the browser-based version of the reader, will be available for some enterprise users. I don’t actually know much about that, since my side of the business is not the enterprise side.

GT: So the switch to Google Reader is fairly straightforward, makes sense, users have asked for it, and so on.

BRENT SIMMONS: Indeed. It would be more straightforward if the initial beta had fewer bugs. But, in theory, it should be quite straightforward. (And I’m fixing bugs as fast as I can.) Users have asked for it like crazy, by the way. It’s far and away the single biggest feature request. If I had to sum up the feedback I’ve gotten in the past year or so, it would be this one sentence: “Please make it sync with Google Reader!”

GT: But why the switch to in-app advertising? Is it to make up for lost revenue on apps previously displayed in Newsgator Online? (I’m assuming there were some; I never
used it, so that might be an incorrect assumption.)

BRENT SIMMONS: I think we may have displayed ads in NewsGator Online for a little while — but not usually. I don’t think I personally ever saw any ads there. Why display ads in NetNewsWire now? Anybody might speculate that it’s good to make money, and that the economy has turned upside down since NetNewsWire went free — and, actually, I don’t have anything more to add other than that.

(Brent suggested I contact Newsgator’s VP Marketing for further comment about that – here’s the reply.)

GT: Finally, on removing other methods of sync: you say you want to simplify things, and free up time to working on cool stuff for 4.0. Can you go into a little more detail about what’s so bad about having the option to use FTP sync?

BRENT SIMMONS: If this method of syncing were good and worked well, I’d want to keep it. But it has a lousy user experience, and it works poorly: it’s full of bugs.

It’s five-year-old code, and it was the first time I ever tried syncing. I’ve learned a ton about syncing since then. I’ve also learned that if I want to fix the bugs in the FTP (and MobileMe) syncing, I’d have to start over completely. It’s not just that it’s buggy — the model is flawed, top-to-bottom. The entire thing is a giant bug.

To make matters worse, it works only on Macs. These days lots of folks have iPhones, and some have Androids or Pres, or use Windows or Linux, or need a browser-based reader. A Mac-only system is not only unsuitable for the future, it’s unsuitable for the present.

When people did use it, years ago — they pretty much stopped using it, long before the current 3.2 beta — it was a support problem. Partly because of the bugs, but also because FTP servers are notoriously flaky, and configuring the right settings to connect to an FTP server is kind of a pain. And I write RSS readers, not FTP clients: I was not and am not an expert on that stuff. Helping people with FTP craziness took time away from me fixing bugs and adding new features for everyone else.

All that said, I could have left it in 3.2. But doing so would have meant testing it again, making any needed changes that other changes in the app might have required. Every hour spent on that is an hour I could have spent on something a lot more people could use.

And then, what if I left it in 3.2 and somebody who used this feature paid to remove ads in 3.2 — and then this feature was removed in 4.0? (Because, for technical reasons, it would almost certainly have to be removed in 4.0.) The last for-pay licenses expired in early December 2008, so that’s not an issue for 3.2, but it would be an issue for 4.0. I’d rather the feature be gone now, before anybody spends any money, so they know what they’re getting.

Finally — you know who leaves in features that almost nobody uses? You know who designs software by letting features accrete over time? Microsoft. But we’re Mac users — we don’t want software like that. (And this one was a biggie — it accounted for about 3 MB of NetNewsWire’s size.)

Two more links before we end:

  • Khoi Vinh posted a lengthy critique, in which he spelled out how trying the new beta caused his Google Reader feeds to be “rendered almost useless”
  • Doug McLean at TidBITS has criticisms too, saying Newsgator’s efforts to push NNW users on to the new beta was “unwise”. Which is putting it mildly.

Over to you, Cult readers. Has Newsgator done the right thing, but in the wrong way? Or just the wrong thing? Or are you a happy NetNewsWire user and intending to stay that way? We’d be interested to hear what you think.

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About the author

Giles TurnbullGiles Turnbull is a freelance writer in England. He also writes for the Press Association and The Morning News. You can find out more at his website, and follow him on Twitter @gilest.

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