22 June 2013

Another Google Reader “alternative”: The Old Reader

The Old Reader is a project started about a year ago after the original Reader took its first blow from Vater . Naturally, now that Reader will soon be shut down, all alternatives have gained more visibility as RSS users try to find a new app for their reading needs. Unfortunately the current version is still far away from competing even with a stripped down Reader on features.

My overall impression of the webapp is that the team focused too much on recreating the old sharing in Reader and neglected other aspects that are much more important nowadays. The interface is very similar to Reader, with the subscription panel on the left, a home page with links to recent content, tips and updates from the Old Reader team. It has a no-frills list view for items and a greenish theme I don’t particularly like, but that’s not really an issue long-term, it could be easily fixed with custom CSS in the browser. The bigger problems, as I mentioned, are in terms of functionality:

The Old Reader home screen
  • The Old Reader was built to bring back Reader’s sharing, and has done just that, adding the option to connect with friends. The problem is sharing has evolved a lot since two years ago so most people share things through or Facebook and are unlikely to try to build yet another social graph here. Beside sharing to your Old-Reader circle of connections, the app doesn’t offer much else; you can connect to Facebook, but that only publishes shared items on your Facebook profile, you can’t selectively share to Facebook or to Old-Reader as far as I understand. There’s no way to connect other social services like Twitter, Buffer, IFTTT or Delicious in the webapp directly, which to me is a major shortsightedness.
  • ‘Liking’ items is another action borrowed from , and, just like the original, I find it hard to understand it’s purpose. It looks like another form of sharing with a separate entry in the sidebar, visible to your connections.
  • A – much more useful – feature is starring items for future reference; and Old Reader chose not to add it! Instead you can connect your profile to Pocket and save articles there… and if you don’t want to set up another service, though luck! I guess you can use ‘liking’ as sort of a substitute, but I still don’t understand the reasoning behind implementing public ‘liking’ instead of private ‘starring’.
  • The migration from Google Reader went smoothly enough, but immediately afterwards I got an unwelcomed surprise: the app doesn’t import the read/unread status of your feeds! Instead it fetches recent items so you are left with thousands of unread items, many of them months old. Granted, other apps don’t offer anything better, but what I fail to understand is why developers would not prioritize this over other features. After all, unlike Feedly who was just a Reader client, The Old Reader had the explicit goal of replacing Reader altogether and for that you need to have an easy way to migrate users over. It will take me a lot of time to ‘sync’ 250 subscriptions manually, so this is a huge barrier preventing me – or anyone else – from giving The Old Reader a proper chance. I will save that effort for a single app, when I finally settle on Reader replacement. At this moment Feedly has a clear lead, after launching a web-only version and with multiple options for mobile access.
  • Another thing I noticed after neglecting the app for about two weeks is the message below. It’s a nice way of saying the app marks items as read without your control, a very questionable choice. I can understand that their server space and processing power is limited, but I would like some control over what is kept unread. Google Reader had a similar limitation, marking items older than 30 days as read, but that still left people enough time to catch up with important articles. Here I don’t have any way of knowing what was discarded; I suspect it was only from the high-volume feeds. In any case this defeats the purpose of an RSS reader; if I would only want ‘fresh’ content I could just user Twitter!The Old Reader only fresh posts
  • Last, but not least, the site doesn’t have any mobile apps or an API so that other app makers can integrate it.

So, bottom line? The Old Reader could be OK for a casual RSS reader who only checks feeds on the desktop; for the rest of them it’s a service stuck in the past. Even Feedbin, launched merely three months ago, has a more modern feature set, with several iOS apps and the API to make even more possible.


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