All Or Nothing

02 Jul 2013

It’s the end of an era. Google Reader is dead.

While we’re waiting for the RSS landscape to sort itself out, the demise of what was arguably one of the largest sync services on the Internet brings to mind an interesting question which others much smarter than me have attempted to answer:

Why do people stick with a particular app even in cases where many alternatives exist?

The simple answer is that the product they’ve chosen fills a particular need. Simple enough, but thinking about this a bit more reveals why this happens. Take for example, Microsoft Word, an application with a long history that, in fairness, is probably the only reasonable choice1 for creating rich text files on Windows. It’s not because it’s great, but because the format is near-ubiquitous.

The more complicated reason that this happens is the result of the workflows that people have built up around applications. Emacs is another great example of this phenomenon at work: if you need to do something in a window that involves text (provided that you don’t mind writing some code) you can write a program to make Emacs do it. Once people get used to the environment and build up their habits, they often don’t want to (or can’t) leave.2

Decisions, decisions

As Marco points out, NetNewsWire has a long history on the Mac and is well respected, but it’s just not for him. Taking a look at the landscape, he concludes:

If your primary focus is traditional feed-reading (i.e. excluding browsing-centric, social-hybrid apps such as Flipboard), I believe launching a proprietary feed-sync solution in today’s environment is a huge strategic error.

Up until now, I’ve resisted the idea of having a desktop RSS application - it just seemed unnecessary.3 With the news that Black Pixel is hard at work on the next version of NetNewsWire, it would be foolish to not at least find out if it may finally be time to give it try. At first glance, it’s an attractive idea for a few reasons:

It’s this last point that most people (Marco included) seem to take issue with. What happens if 6 months from now a new app comes out that outdoes NetNewsWire in some way? It forces people to make a long term commitment to the applications that they use and if the time comes and they decide to move again it’s not always easy.4

But if your app only syncs to your own service and nobody else’s, you’ve put up a massive barrier: for someone who likes feed-reading on multiple platforms, to switch to you, they’ll need to like your respective clients better than their existing choices on every platform they use.

It’s the idea of becoming “trapped” in an application and having to migrate your entire setup to a new environment. I worry slightly that this might happen with NetNewsWire, but having only used a trial of version 3 in the past (before I developed sane RSS habits), I can’t say that for sure. Text editors are another good example of this problem as they are general tools that can be adapted for many different purposes. Once you find a good one, you don’t want to have to switch very often. Take for example, BBEdit, the application I’m using to write this post; It supports a large number of different languages and programming styles, but unlike Emacs, it isn’t arbitrarily extensible. If there’s some feature that BBEdit can’t do or doesn’t fit into Bare Bones’ package system, I need to find another piece of software to do it. It’s not really possible for me to work my way so far into BBEdit that I couldn’t get out and switch to another text editor if I absolutely had5 to.

At this point, there’s not much to do but wait (and laugh) until the smoke clears. In the meantime, I’m using Feedbin as the backend6 to Reeder on the iPhone and iPad even if it’s not what the cool kids are using.

The next few weeks and months should be interesting.

  1. At this point, the open-source and free software types will fire up Emacs to write an angry rebuttal about how this is complete nonsense and OpenOffice is perfectly suited to do the job. Sorry guys, I know you love OpenOffice and it does everything you need, but unless everyone you know is using it, and you’re not working in a corporate setting or (God forbid) academia, where things are pretty much standardized, compatibility with Word is a requirement.

  2. Hence the term “Emacs lifer”

  3. It also helps when you don't have a working MacBook Pro and having been borrowing a MacBook for the past few months to write, check email etc. Hear that Tim? Any day you feel like putting Haswell into the Retina MacBook Pro, let me know.

  4. Again, see Emacs

  5. It would have to be a pretty convincing argument. BBEdit is one of the best editors I've ever used.

  6. I don't know yet if I want another ecosystem, I just want things to sync.