The Hunt for the Google Reader Replacement

Google will “retire” its RSS reader on July 1, incredibly annoying news for someone like me who has relied heavily on the service. I do so both as a writer and reader, checking my RSS feeds multiple times a day as I monitor the education-technology news as well as utilizing RSS to reach the thousands of subscribers to Hack Education.

I’ve been searching for a replacement to Reader since Google announced its impending closure mid-March, trying almost all of the popular alternatives and feeling frustrated with my options. With a couple weeks left before Reader closes, I’ve finally made my plans. I’m blogging about my decision here, in the hopes of helping others think through their feed-reader migration.

What Do You Need to Replace?

Google Reader has served a number of functions for its users, all of which people should think about as they choose a replacement:

1. RSS management (Handling feed subscriptions)

2. RSS consumption (Reading and sharing feeds)

3. RSS archive (Searching for blog posts)

Even if you don’t give a damn about number 3, you need to think about how you’re going to handle 1 and 2. Not all popular feed readers are prepared to do this.

My Priorities

With those functions in mind, along with my own desire to control as much of my digital infrastructure as possible, these are the things I have been looking for in a Google Reader replacement (clearly some of these are more important than others):

1. Data portability (Um, hello. If you haven’t learned the lesson from Google Reader closing that you need to be able to move your data in and out of services easily, then you aren’t paying attention. Vendor lock-in sucks, and if you don't choose your new RSS feeder wisely, you might find your feeds are "stuck" there once the Google Reader API goes away)

2. Syncing (I check feeds on my laptop and on my iOS devices. Marking feeds "read" needs to sync across these devices)

3. Search (I want to be able to maintain an archive of blog posts I’ve read so I can easily retrieve and reread stories)

4. Self-hosting (I’m growing increasingly nervous about relying on someone else’s services. I run my own server, so I’d like to be able to host my own feed reader too)

5. Open source (More eyes on the code is more better)

6. Feed management (I need to be able to add and delete feeds easily, and I want to be able to import and export an OPML file)

7. Sharing (I want simple integration with the services I use in conjunction with reading feeds: Twitter, Evernote, Pinboard, Facebook, email)

8. APIs (Obligatory when you’re dating the API Evangelist. But seriously, this is crucial for 1 and 7 above)

9. A business model (I will not adopt a free tool that has no monetization plans. Nor will I use one that relies on ads)

10. Reliability and responsiveness (Reading feeds, as I note above, is a crucial part of my work. I need a feed reader that “just works.”)

11. A browser-based version (I’d rather use the Web than a native app.)

12. A nice, clean UI (It doesn’t have to be fancy or Flipboard-ish. In fact, I prefer it if it’s not)

What I Tried (And What I Liked/Disliked)

I have tried many of the Google Reader alternatives. (I recommend this list compiled by Hrishi Mittal which also links to several HackerNews discussions if you are still weighing your options.) Considering my long list of “demands” above, it’s hardly surprising that the search for a replacement for Google Reader has been rather frustrating. A few thoughts on the ones that I’ve tried:

Feedly: I realize that this app has been crowned by the technology press as the replacement-of-choice. Feedly is purportedly working on an effort to replicate the Google Reader API so that it will manage feed subscriptions, not merely handle feed display. Pro: Easy to sign up and configure. Has web-based and mobile apps. Con: Does not offer data portability – that is, there is no way for you to export your feeds should you choose to migrate to another service. No clear business plan.

Fever: I installed Fever on my own server, and that’s a huge plus. Pro: Self-hosted. Con: I hate the UI. We used Fever at ReadWriteWeb, and okay, maybe I was just traumatized by that whole experience.

The Old Reader: Pro: As the name suggests, this service is very reminiscent of the “old” Google Reader. Con: No mobile apps. It’s free, and I’m not sure what it’s business model is.

Feeddler: I have used this app on my iPhone since Google Reader announced its closure, and I like it a lot. But like many RSS readers, it’s been using Google Reader as its feed management backbone, and once that goes away, it’ll have to migrate to something else. The plans, according to the developer, are to move to the BazQux Reader, a premium service. Pro: Great mobile app, with a paid option that gets rid of ads. Con: No desktop version. It’s going a different route for feed management than the service I’ve chosen to adopt.

TinyTinyRSS: Self-hosted and open source, I was really hoping that Tiny Tiny RSS would be the tool for me. But it was a pain-in-the-ass to set up, threw all sorts of errors in processing feeds, and just generally made me sad. Pro: self-hosted and open source. Con: self-hosted and open source.

NewsBlur: Pro: NewsBlur is open source, with Web and mobile versions. There’s a business model ($24/year). Con: It’s ugly.

Prismatic: Prismatic surfaces content that I don’t normally see in my RSS feeds or on Twitter, and I do like it for that. But it’s not a replacement for how I use RSS. Pro: Smart content delivery. Con: I want all 2000 of my feeds, dammit. I’m old skool like that.

NetNewsWire: I tried NetNewsWire long before Google announced the demise of Reader, but never really fell in love with its look or feel or functionality. Pro: Mac and iOS apps. Con: Crashes a lot.

FeedWrangler: Yes, Virginia. You will need to replace your feed management tool, not just your feed reader. I tried FeedWrangler, which runs $18.99/yr. Pro: Nice interface and a clear business model. Con: I found it threw repeated errors when updating and refreshing my feeds.

What I Chose

For feed management: costs $2 per month (or $20 a year). It offers data portability (that is, you can import and export your feed subscription list). There’s a simple Web-based interface to read feeds. There’s an API. integrates with a number of apps, including Reeder (see below).

For feed reading:

I tried Reeder’s Mac app when it was in beta, and I really liked its clean UI and its integration with my favorite sharing tools. Once it moved out of beta, I confess, I went back to using Google’s web-based Reader – that’s my stubbornness. And my silly reliance on Google, I guess. I never adopted Reeder’s iOS apps either, although they share the desktop app’s nice UI. The iPhone app already supports (the app costs $2.99. It also works with Fever), and that support is coming soon to the iPad and Mac versions (they’re currently free while the updates are in the works).

(And for those keeping score at home, nope, I did not get all the things on my "priorities" list. But I have a feed management tool -- a substitute for the Google Reader API -- that offers APIs and data portability, one that has a clear business model, one that is working with an app developer whose Mac and iOS apps I like.)

What You Need to Do, No Matter What RSS Tool(s) You Chose

No matter what app you decide to utilize for your feeds – and even if you are prepared to jump on the “RSS is dead” bandwagon – you should go to Google Takeout and download your Google Reader data. Google will give you a ZIP file, containing JSON files of your Reader followers (ah, remember the good ol’ days?), your “likes,” shares, and stars, your Google Reader notes, and – here’s the key – a list of your RSS subscriptions.

That file – subscriptions.xml – is important. That’s the list of all the feeds you currently follow. That’s what you want to be able to maintain (which you can do with a tool like Dave Winer’s Little Outliner, even if you choose a feed reader that doesn't support OPML exporting) as that’s what powers your news.

Well, that's what powers the news along with all the good writers online who still make sure their publications are syndicated through the RSS standard. July 1 can come and go, and we won't need Google any longer... except for that whole Feedburner thing. Dammit.

Image credits: The Noun Project

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