Bye-bye, Google Reader: Alternative RSS solutions for Mac and iOS users

Because I write about technology, people tend to ask me for tech advice. So ever since Google’s heartbreaking announcement that it was closing down Google Reader—and the newsfeed syncing APIs that went along with—folks have asked me what my news reading plan is post Reader’s demise.

I love RSS; I’ve used NetNewsWire since its launch, and I use Reeder for iPad and iPhone. All three apps stay in sync via Google Reader’s API, and they’ve worked together in beautiful harmony for years. And now Google’s ruining everything by killing a beloved (though likely unprofitable) service. So when people ask me what my plan is for RSS after Google, my answer is simple: denial, denial, denial.

Google Reader shuts down July 1. A million newsreaders will cry out, no longer able to sync their feeds across multiple devices. Those who relied on Google Reader’s Web interface will similarly find themselves stuck up the news creek without a reader. Denial’s gotten me this far, but it’s time to move on.

There are options. I don’t love any of them, yet. But perhaps I can learn to.

Export your Google Reader data now, before July 1. Google may still offer the option to export your data after July 1, but there are no guarantees.

Export business

Many services can import your Google Reader subscriptions. But listen—and this is important—the time to export your Google Reader subscriptions is now. Don’t wait. If you haven’t exported them yet, do so before July 1 rolls around. If you use an app like NetNewsWire, you can use its Export OPML options. Otherwise, head over to Google Takeout, and re-enter your password if prompted. Click the Choose Services tab, and then find Reader in the alphabetical list. Then click Create Archive, wait a minute or three, and click Download to grab the completed archive.

There are several companies aiming to replace Google Reader both as Web services and as backend APIs for third-party apps to connect to. Some of the companies are huge—we’ll get to them in a bit. In some ways, though, I’m more intrigued by the little guys entering the space. That may be because Google, one of the biggest big guys, just left me high and dry. So let’s start smaller.

Young upstarts

Feedly, FeedHQ, Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, Fever, and BazQux Reader are all smaller companies looking to usurp Google Reader’s old place in our hearts and software. (BazQux clearly didn’t get the “start name with F” memo.)

Different apps work with different services. Reeder for iPhone (not the iPad version) currently works with Feedbin and Fever. Mr. Reader supports every service mentioned above on the iPad. As Google Reader’s demise gets closer, expect more apps to announce support for new services.

Feedly

Feedly is free. To me, that’s a knock against it. If Google—Google!—couldn’t figure out a way to monetize this kind of service, I’m not sure anyone can. It doesn’t help that I’m no fan of Feedly’s interface on the Web: I basically want something that looks like NetNewsWire, and Feedly isn’t it. To its credit, the service does support a slew of keyboard shortcuts, handles folders well, and uses a clean layout—just one that doesn’t work for me. Besides the aforementioned Mr. Reader, you can use the Newsify app with Feedly; that offers a pleasant enough browsing experience on iOS, but leaves you without a great reading solution on your Mac.

FeedHQ. Click to see larger. I mean, if you really want to.

FeedHQ, on the other hand, charges money—$12 per year. That semblance of a business model goes in the pro column. But the open-source service’s plain-Jane interface would disappoint even a hardcore Linux-lover. There’s decent, omnipresent keyboard control, but no current folder support, mangled timestamps, and other problems. While it ostensibly works, it’s hard to recommend.

Feedbin. Sweet, sweet Feedbin.

Feedbin charges, too; it costs $2 per month, or $20 per year. It’s the first Web service I tried that I felt I could make work. Your folders become tags in Feedbin’s parlance, and there are plenty of settings to tweak how the Web app organizes and sorts your feeds. The keyboard shortcuts are plentiful, and include excellent arrow key support, which warms my heart. There’s built-in Readability integration, so if a site’s RSS feed doesn’t include the complete article, you can click a button to load the rest of the story in many cases. Keyboard shortcuts let you open the current story in another tab, including an option (Shift-V) to open that tab in the background. Feedbin isn’t a desktop client, but it’s working hard to feel awfully close. I like that. Sometimes, though, it can feel a little slow on the Web: Marking as read takes a couple of extra beats; the article preview pane can’t keep up as you’re navigating through your feed source list. But Feedbin is certainly a service that gives me hope for our Google Readerless future.

Feed Wrangler

Feed Wrangler costs $19 per year, and seemed promising at first. That rate includes free access to apps that the company offers for iOS, and an upcoming app the service says it will offer for the Mac. But I had trouble with the service. There was no confirmation when I paid the $19 subscription fee, and I never received a receipt. The service choked repeatedly on importing my feeds, and doesn’t seem to offer a way to view all of my feeds in a single list—though that may be because it refuses to import them. It doesn’t seem to handle folders. And the Web interface, like FeedHQ’s, feels sorely lacking.

Fever costs $30 and is yours to own forever—but you need to host it yourself. It’s a PHP- and MySQL-based Web engine for managing RSS feeds. It scores bonus points for its novel approach: The software aims to distinguish between “essential” and “supplemental” feeds, and tries to promote the most topical (in other words, “hottest”—get it?) stories to you first. I bought Fever back in March, when Google announced it was killing Reader, and I tried to get into it, but it’s not quite for me. While Fever does well with folders, it doesn’t do great with individual feeds kept outside of folders—such feeds don’t appear in Fever’s sidebar, though you can find their content in Fever’s Hot and Kindling sections.

You give me Fever.

That said, if you have the technical smarts to get the service installed, it’s not a bad option: The three-paneled Web interface is highly usable; the keyboard support is good; Fever will continue to work for a good long time; and third-party apps can (if they so choose) connect to it. I appreciate that I have it in my back pocket should everything else fail.

BazQux Reader looks a lot like Google Reader on the Web. And it works pretty well, with a variety of customizable views. The service costs either $9, $19, or $29 per year; you choose which price you want to pay. The keyboard support is okay, but not great; there’s no arrow key option. Overall, BazQux is okay, if unpronounceable, but its faithfulness to Google Reader’s interface is misspent on me: I was never a fan of Google Reader on the Web. If you were, though, BazQux is worth a close look.

BazQux. It's pronounced just like it's spelled, maybe.

There are other smaller services to explore, too. NewsBlur has its proponents, but I found its Web UI just didn’t work for me at all.

Big guys

Digg Reader on the iPhone

Google taketh away, and now Digg and AOL are giveth-ing us readers of their own. The nascent Digg Reader isn’t bad, but its newness shines through. It uses Google Reader-style keyboard shortcuts, has no arrow key support, can’t open links in the background, and has some other quirks. Digg Reader also just released a companion iOS app. The iOS app shows even more promise than the Web app, and is a pleasure to use.

If you liked Google Reader on the Web, there’s a lot to like with Digg Reader. Despite the fact that it’s in its infancy and feels a little slow, it works, it’s usable, and Digg clearly knows what it’s doing. Digg is providing a healthy dose of optimism, and if third-parties start integrating with the service à la Google Reader, things could get very interesting.

Digg Reader

AOL Reader actually feels a bit more polished than Digg’s take today. You can toggle across a variety of views: List, Card, Full, and Pane, the last of which is exceedingly NetNewsWire-esque. There are no iOS apps involved yet, but AOL Reader works acceptably—with occasionally too-small tapping targets—in Safari on those devices. Keyboard navigation is again Google Reader-ish, with a sad lack of arrow key control. If there’s a way to move from articles back to the source list using the keyboard, I haven’t found it.

AOL Reader

Still, while it’s lovely that big companies like AOL and Digg are interested in filling the RSS void, remember my concerns from the outset: They’re offering these new services for free, just like Google did. You don’t want to get hooked on either service and have it follow Google Reader all the way into the Internet graveyard.

Whether AOL or Digg Reader will prove viable in the long-term depends on a lot of factors. Digg’s involvement probably makes a little more sense than AOL’s; the analytics the company can gather (and potentially monetize) fit right in with the data it can gather from Instapaper and the main Digg website, all of which fall under the same parent company. But really, for either service to prove a hit, it will need to grow quickly, become a popular syncing option, and work reliably. None of those things is assured.

To its credit, Digg says it plans to start charging for some additional features, in a freemium model. Digg hasn’t said yet what it will charge for, beyond stressing that the currently available feature set will remain free.

So what to do

Until Wednesday, my friend and colleague Dan Frakes had a monstrous Frankenstein-level plan, involving using NetNewsWire—sans sync—on his Mac, and Reeder for iOS on both his iPhone and iPad, with Feedbin as the backend. (Neither the iPad nor Mac versions of Reeder have been updated to support Feedbin. And, personally, the Mac version of Reeder isn’t for me; I cling to NetNewsWire’s tabs.)

On Wednesday, a significant update to Mr. Reader added support for many services, so now Dan can run a native iPad app to sync with Feedbin and stick with Reeder on his iPhone. He still plans to use NetNewsWire without sync on his Mac, but that seems less than ideal to me.

So I’m going to follow partway in his footsteps. Feedbin has become my favorite option behind the scenes, and today—with a heavy heart—I removed NetNewsWire from my Dock and my Login Items. In its place is a Fluid app pointing to Feedbin, complete with an unread items count badge. My plan is to rely on the Fluid app until someone makes a great Mac app with a Feedbin backend. And like Dan, I’ll use Reeder on the iPhone, and Mr. Reader on the iPad, all of which will remain in sync thanks to Feedbin.

I’ll miss Google Reader’s backend, and I’ll miss NetNewsWire. But at least I won’t miss the news.

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