Don’t Build An RSS Sync Engine

Brent Simmons:

It seems like all you have to do is make each copy of your RSS reader read and write three files to Dropbox, one file for each item in the list above.

It seems like each reader could just read the files at startup and write out new files when it quits. Problem solved!

But not even close.

Brent Simmons is a very smart man1. His NetNewsWire RSS reader was the gold standard for many years for not only RSS readers, but Mac software in general. A couple of years ago Simmons moved on to more traditional in-house development work, but recently returned to his indie days.

As Simmons talks about, syncing in software is an incredibly challenging issue. Most common folk take software development for granted already. When things don’t “just work” they get incredibly frustrated. As a result, many multi-platform apps get bad reviews for not being able to sync. It’s become a “must have” feature especially with RSS readers.

Most RSS readers have offloaded this functionally to Google Reader, which has some unsupported APIs available to support this functionality. They are free, and like everything else Google does, designed to mine as much data as possible. But Google has hinted on more than one occasion that this functionality will not be available forever, and that people shouldn’t rely on these APIs. It sounds a lot like what Twitter has been doing over the last year in regards to people writing third party applications. In other words, “it’s cool for you to make our thing popular, but at some point we are going to take away the keys.”

If and when this happens, the RSS landscape will get very interesting. Concepts like Fever have already tried to fill this gap by creating a self-hosted alternative to Google Reader. The iPhone version of the very popular Reeder even supports this. Unfortunately their iPad and OS X versions do not, so this isn’t a real alternative for most people at this point. But Reeder developer Silvio Rizzi has at least proven that Fever is an option for third party apps, which could give it a legit shot at being the alternative for the RSS reader “backbone”. Because it does require it’s own hosting, and setup though, it’s likely that they, or someone else would have to start offering hosting for Fever as a way to bridge this gap.

Another alternative would be for people to just start using Google’s own web interface for RSS. There are many people who do already, and it’s decent, but not spectacular. They have a mobile version that works pretty well, particularly on the iPhone. It’s possible that most people would just flock to that because all of their feeds and folders would be there.

The other possibility is that this is finally the death blow to RSS. Many people have been exaggerating RSS’ death for years now already. It’s possible that this would finally be the time that something like Twitter, with or without something like Instapaper, could replace RSS. It’s possible that this could happen at some point, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

Simmons is right about one thing though, there isn’t money in this. The way that most people use RSS, for reading websites and news, is a dying art. A few years from now it might vanish on it’s own, and that makes solving this problem futile.

  1. At least when it comes to software development, I don’t know him personally []