RSS Apps on iPad

A while ago, when I wrote about organizing your news feeds in Google Reader, I mentioned a couple news reading apps for the iPad.  Finally, I’ve made the time to really compare the apps I’ve been using and explain why I use the ones that I do.  To see a chart of the features I look for, and the apps I considered, see this Google Spreadsheet for RSS Apps.   Please feel free to add your comparisons, too!

Flipboard, Pulse, etc.

In case you’re wondering why the pretty magazine-style apps are not here, let me just say that they simply don’t mesh with my news reading workflow.  I do appreciate Flipboard and have shown it to several other people, but I take a more methodical approach to my news feeds.  I haven’t yet seen a way to incorporate such a workflow into something like Flipboard, though I still try it out once in a while.

First Place: Mr. Reader ($3.99)

I started using Mr. Reader just a couple months ago.  Two big reasons I switched to it:  1) my other favorite RSS app, MobileRSS HD, kept crashing… a LOT.  I was over it.  2) I started using Diigo for all my bookmarking and Mr. Reader lets me send links directly to Diigo with tags and description.  If there was some way to also highlight text in an article, Diigo-style, I would be the happiest camper ever.

Likes:  At first the interface appeared a little cluttered, but once I started using it, I found it helped me go through my news feeds more quickly since I didn’t have to open every article to take action on it. I love the little sound effects that are sprinkled into basic functions of the app, but have no fear – you can turn those off.  I also appreciate having the favicons next to the feed titles and thumbnail images from each post.  A wonderful bonus feature is the ability to add new blog subscriptions within the app. But it would be nice if we could then put the new feed into a folder, as is done in MobileRSS HD.  One of the best features is having 4 different view options for your feeds: RSS (just the blog post), Web (view the original, with comments), Mobilizer (like Web but simplified), and Readability (full post).  The ability to easily and consistently bring in the full post on those super annoying blog feeds that only send out truncated articles is the stuff of rainbows, my friends. And finally, a bonus feature that has become one of my “must have” tools is the ability to open links in non-Safari browsers such as Atomic Web, Mercury, or iCab.  Those three are the only alternative browsers available in the app so far, but it also gives the option of using Send2Mac, which I have not played with yet.

Dislikes: Seriously, how can this be a Google Reader app and NOT have a “Share with Note” option?  I’m hoping this gets added in an update soon. It’s one of the biggest features that keeps Mr. Reader from being my one-and-only RSS app.  It has had 5 updates since it came out in April, so the developer appears to be fixing things on a monthly basis.  I also wish there was a way to get back to the original blog post after following links – as in, a back button?  One little thing that would be nice but isn’t crucial, would be a setting to choose between scrolling a post up to see the next post, or scrolling sideways to see more posts.  I prefer sideways but the default right now is up/down, which causes a problem sometimes when it’s not obvious that I’m at the end of a long post.

Second Place:  MobileRSS HD ($4.99 or free)

I have a love / hate relationship with MobileRSS.  They have some great features and a nice interface, but the app crashes so often I have deleted it off my iPad at least twice.  And yet, it can do a couple things other apps can’t do (like Comment View and adding new feeds), so then I end up putting it back on.  But I can only use those features when it’s not crashing, of course.

Likes:  The interface is similar to Reeder in using swipes between posts, but it doesn’t mess around with the goofy pinching piles of paper metaphor that Reeder uses.  Going through posts in portrait mode is lovely – the text fills the screen but with good margins on the sides, and you can simply swipe to the next post like you’re turning a page.  Using the book metaphor for news reading appeals to me, but for longer text I prefer this style of seeing one post at a time over the Flipboard style of showing several at once. On another note, MobileRSS seems to be one of the few apps that can display a subscription to another Google Reader user’s starred items – not shared items, mind you, but starred items.  A couple people have shared their starred item feeds with me so we can discuss more posts without cluttering up each other’s shared items.  But only MobileRSS and Feeddler will display them.  Argh.

Dislikes:  The crashing.  And have I mentioned the crashing?  If they could fix that problem, and add Diigo integration, MobileRSS HD would win back its crown as “Sara’s only RSS app” away from Mr. Reader.

Honorable Mention: Reeder ($4.99)

If you go back through the reviews in the App Store of MobileRSS HD you will see many disgruntled customers accusing them of stealing their design from Reeder. Reeder and Flipboard set precedents when it came to designing an interface for the iPad, not just for doing computer-like things on an iPad.  I used Reeder for quite a while alongside MobileRSS HD, but as you’ll see from the Google Spreadsheet comparison – there is quite a bit that Reeder can’t do… for my purposes, anyway.

Likes:  Clean interface, swiping between posts, holding on a link brings up the full action menu so you can send it to Instapaper without opening it.

Dislikes: It has no free version to try out and it’s never been cheaper than $4.99.  It has no “Night” theme so if you try to read in a dark room, the screen is blindingly bright, even with the iPad’s brightness turned down all the way.  Many apps are starting to incorporate their own brightness settings now, which can get darker than the iPad’s settings, thus avoiding some strain and headaches for night readers.  But then, Reeder is guilty of one of my all-time greatest pet peeves in iOS apps — putting the settings in the iPad Settings app.  I hate this.  If I want to change something about your app, I’m only going to think of it when I’m using your app.  Why should I have to switch to something else entirely in order to change your app?

The biggest reason I don’t like using Reeder much is the way it displays people I follow in Google Reader.  I prefer to see each person’s shared items separately, but Reeder only shows them in a big muddle and it’s hard to tell who shared what.  Both Mr. Reader and MobileRSS HD separate the shared items by person sharing.  This makes much more sense to me, for whatever reason.

Looking ahead

The beauty of using Google Reader for my news feeds is that I can switch apps on a whim and all my stuff is synced. There is the little set-up time when you have to log into Instapaper, Evernote, and so forth again but that usually doesn’t take long.  Some RSS apps that I’m keeping an eye on, in case they get upgrades and improve are:

Readict ($4.99)  –  This is the app I’m most excited about.  It was made by Diigo for Diigo, but works with Google Reader and Twitter favorites.  However, it has not had many reviews yet in the App Store – only 7.  It came out in early July but has only had one update so far.  I like to see regular update activity on apps, because there is almost always something to fix, and I want to know that the developer is committed to their apps.  I have it on my wishlist at AppShopper in case anything changes.

River of News ($3.99)  –  I picked up this app when it went on sale briefly several months ago.  It has an interface very similar to Reeder and MobileRSS HD, but with a lighter touch and little letterpress-style details in the design.  However, it also has many of the same problems as Reeder.  One interesting addition that keeps River of News in the running is the ability to add customizable gesture commands for shortcut taps.  I’m watching to see where this app goes, but it hasn’t had an update since February.

Perfect RSS Reader ($.99)  –  This has some similarities to River of News, including gesture options, but the interface and design give the app a style of its own with very thin lines and sandstone coloring. It definitely has potential but there are little things that keep me from using it regularly, such as only displaying the feed list in a pop-out window, and not having a night-reading theme.

What’s your favorite way to read news and RSS feeds?  I’d love to get more suggestions!

Ebooks: something new, something borrowed

Just as live theatre continued after radio, and radio survived TV, and TV goes on despite the internet, so, too, will paper books coexist with digital books for a long, long time.  At first, ebook creators tried very hard to mimic the older sibling, which had a few centuries to mature into its own style, with page numbers, chapters, tables of content, margins, and nice bindings.

Finally the ebook is starting to experiment with a style of its own, though the wardrobe changes are happening fast, depending on where you look. Below are a couple ebook trends that I find particularly interesting.

Something new

A couple background bits to better understand my interest in ebooks of late — first, I’m a bibliophile and librarian. Second, while I was getting my graduate degree, I took a few classes on user experience design and usability.  At the time, I thought about usability in terms of websites for library catalogs, databases, and so on.  I was fascinated to see how storytelling became an element of user experience, and now I see user experience entering the realm of book design.

In the paper form, books did not seem to stray far from the traditional codex format.  Now that ebooks are morphing into apps, almost anything is possible.  The table of contents doesn’t have to be a table anymore, chapters don’t have to follow each other, and the whole notion of page numbers can be turned into something else entirely.

Along these lines, I’ve been following a few blogs that are diving into these questions.  My favorites so far:

  • New Kind of Book by Peter Meyers – some of his pieces are repeated at the blogs below, but I still think it’s worthwhile to catch each of his posts
  • Digital Book World – this multi-author blog looks at ebooks from the publishing point of view, more fascinating than I would have thought
  • Publishing Insight on O’Reilly Radar – the more technical side of ebooks and publishing

I’m excited to see the traditional idea of “what is the book” turned upside down.  Perhaps, after a heady phase of experimentation, we’ll end up using the old book trappings after all, even in our ebooks.  Or maybe, as future writers grow up reading ebooks of varying formats, they’ll begin to write in completely different styles that push ebook formats into further changes.

Something Borrowed

Another trend popping up again lately (seems to come and go in waves) is serialization.  When I think of serialized books, I think of old London magazines in the late 1800s selling pieces of Charles Dickens stories and then later, selling Sherlock Holmes cases to such raging popularity that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to bring the character back after killing him off.  I find it somehow strange that there hasn’t been a online serialized story that has gone viral quite like Dickens or Conan Doyle did in their day.  The blog format seems like the perfect tool for such a narrative unfolding over time, but it just hasn’t taken off in that way … as far as I know, at least.  The closest thing I’ve seen to something like this was the @MayorEmanuel twitter feed during the Chicago election.

Another, shorter Twitter story unfolded recently, as described by Peter Meyers.  And there have been reports of serialized ebooks coming out, with various levels of pricing options:

As readers become accustomed to using devices like the Kindle and iPad for subscriptions, I wonder if serialized fiction will make a comeback.  We have some serialized fiction now in the form of TV miniseries and sitcoms, but I’m hoping for something better.  Deep down I see serialized fiction as the format that will usher in a tidal wave of social reading — people talking about the latest piece of the story over dinner with friends or over coffee at work. Maybe it’s just me, but one big thing I think we would gain from a shared experience of literature (over the shared experience of TV, for example) is the space for imagination, the wiggle room for interpretation that is hardly present (or to a much lesser extent) in the visual and aural world of TV.

Would you subscribe to a novel?  Would you read a chapter at a time as it was released, or save them until you had the whole book?

And most of all – what do you see as the biggest difference to emerge so far between ebooks and paper books?

Amazon Please Fix Your Store

You might have heard about Amazon’s announcement that they have created a textbook rental program.  I think this is a great step — anything that makes it easier for faculty and students to find cheaper textbook alternatives with an interface they might recognize is a good thing.  And I love that students will be able to access their notes even after their rental book expires – that is very important.

However.

However, Amazon’s manifestation of this idea is not a good thing.  In my email to their feedback contact, I outline why:

Dear Auto-response or human,

For your sake and mine, I’m hoping one huge glaring problem can be fixed with the rental Kindle textbooks before university classes get started in the Fall.

The problem is how editions of books are shown in the store.  Right now, if I go to the literature section of the Textbook store, I’ll see titles such as “Pride and Prejudice (Barnes & Noble Classics)” or “A Tale of Two Cities (Penguin Classics)” but the Kindle books attached to these items are not the B&N Classics or Penguin Classics editions, and this will be VERY important for students who are assigned a particular edition by their professors precisely so they can read the supplemental materials included by Penguin or B&N.  The Kindle editions are just Project Gutenberg knock-offs, and the students will get very frustrated since they can’t figure out how to get the edition they actually need for class.

PLEASE, start putting some decent publication information on the Kindle books!  I would truly love to see Amazon enter the Textbook market – I think Amazon makes an excellent ebook product, except when it comes to anything that requires a particular edition of a book.  As a book company, you of all companies should know that all editions of one title are not the same.  Please fix this so we won’t hear the complaints come this fall.

Thank you…

I’m sure there is a much better way to explain what I’m trying to describe here.  Do you see this as a potential problem for your campus?  How would you fix this?

Organizing Google Reader

Last weekend’s THATCamp LAC had many wonderful sessions full of discussions. One of those sessions was “Is there a tech in this class?” which became a show-and-tell of favorite online tools, in about five minutes each.  I gave a quick overview of my Google Reader workflow, based on an old blog post I had stumbled across a couple years back about optimizing one’s Google Reader experience.

The short version:

Instead of sorting your RSS subscriptions into folders by subject, sort them according to how frequently they have new posts and how much you want to read them.  This way you will always go through your most important and/or timely articles first, saving the not-so-important articles for a more leisurely time.

Google Reader FoldersThe long version:

In the screenshot here, I’ve numbered my folders according to how often I try to read them.  “1 Daily”, “2 EdTech”, and “2 Skim” are all folders that I try to look at everyday if I can, but I will settle for a purge every few days if necessary.

The feeds in “1 Daily” post something new at least once a day, if not more frequently, and their posts usually require more attention than a quick glance.  This includes the wonderful book reviews from The Millions and CultureLab, ebook news from No Shelf Required, plus musings and links from Text Patterns.

The folder “2 Skim” has crazy ridiculous feeds that have, on average, well over 100 new posts every week.  I subject myself to these feeds because I feel that an important part of my job is staying up-to-date on tech trends so that my colleagues don’t have to.  To that end, I have things like ReadWriteWeb and Lifehacker here. There are other more techie, and even more prolific, news feeds I could subscribe to but I’m not that big on punishment.

One of the benefits of lumping feeds together in folders like this – after skimming through the headlines to star or Instapaper those that interest you, you can then use the magic “Mark all as read” button to clear all the other posts away.  Ta da!  This way I funnel the posts I’m most interested in to my Instapaper feed, which I also subscribe to in Google Reader, but I keep it separate from any folders.  After I’ve quickly cleared out a couple folders, I can go into my Instapaper articles knowing those are the things I want to spend more time with.

Up to this point, each folder has only had a handful of subscriptions since the respective feeds all delivered so much content.  For the folders “3 Weekly” and “4 Monthly” the RSS feeds have maybe 5 new posts a week, and although they’re very informative, I don’t mind letting them pile up to be combed through once a month over the occasional weekend with downtime. The folder “3 Weekly” has a miscellany of things like Google for Students, FlowingData, BookTwo and about 30 other feeds.

And, yes, I do still have two subject folders after all.  Two reasons for this:  1) my Library folder is huge, with about 60 different feeds.  Fortunately, none of them post more than a few new items each week, and some only post new items once a month (journal TOCs).  This, too, is a folder that I will save for those weekends when I do a lot of RSS catch-up in one go.  2) my People folder is the special place for friends I know in real life who have personal blogs. I don’t want these posts getting lost in the shuffle of skimming folders so I keep them in their own cozy corner.

Trends in Google Reader

The details: 

You might be asking, “How do I know which feeds are which?”  Google Reader has a couple handy dandy tools for this.

1. Trends (click screenshot for bigger image)

Log into the web version of Google Reader, click on Trends from the sidebar.  Toward the bottom of that Trends page, you should see a column for Reading Trends and one for Subscription Trends.  These columns tell you which feeds are most active (Subscription trends) and which feeds you interact with the most (Reading trends).   Unfortunately, the information is only for the last 30 days so ask yourself how typical the past month has been for your reading habits and take the stats with a grain of salt.

Google Reader Subscription Details2. Subscription Details (click screenshot for bigger image)

To see how often a specific RSS feed has new articles, click on that feed from the Subscriptions area of your left sidebar, then click “Show details” to see how many posts per week you can expect from that subscription.  I’ve started using this information in evaluating new feeds before committing to them.  If a feed has truncated posts and spits out more than 10 each week, I probably won’t be following unless it’s REALLY good.

I do my actual reading on my iPad, and I’ll be looking at my two favorite RSS apps – Reeder and MobileRSS HD – in a future post.

Laws of Library Science Redux

I’ve been batting about some ideas lately in the cat-swatting-a-toy way, and just to get some of these things off my mind, I’m dumping them here.  These musings are not perfectly articulated, and I realize that…  so I hope you do, too.

For review, Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science (Wikipedia):

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

On the Wikipedia page linked above, you will also see a few of the many variations that have been created over the years. I know we don’t need another goshdarn version of the Five Laws, but some online readings of late had me turning these over in my mind.  It started with the if:book post about the future of the app, which reminded me of a couple posts from earlier this year — one arguing for books to become apps, and one about Elements, a website that became a book and then an app.  I personally don’t want my books mixed in with my apps just yet, but at the same time I can see how the interface potential of apps can offer a whole new twist on our relationship with text.  In the Elements article, author Theodore Gray was asked about the blurring between the book and the app version, to which he replied:

I think it’s confusing … for there to be both a bookstore and a books category in the App Store. These two places exist for purely technical reasons, and not very good ones at that. Hopefully at some point Apple will fix this. In the mean time, all the interesting ebooks will need to go in the App Store, because the iBookstore is not able to handle them.

When talking about the Future of the App, Bob Stein wrote:

In the past we had books, movies and songs. Now they’re all being bundled into one category — apps — to be further delineated by a descriptive prefix. It’s easy to imagine today that movies will have back stories and fan elaborations available on the web and new fiction forms will explore and make use of a complex amalgam of media types. The categories — books, songs, movies — meant something in the past that loses specific meaning in this fluid digital domain where each can incorporate aspects of the other.

So whether I like the idea or not, I do agree that the nature of our media is changing and morphing into something we can’t necessarily describe right now.  The potential of coming-soon apps like Rethink’s Social Books has me excited to see what kind of community experiences we can have with our rediscovered love of reading.

This leads me to thinking about the Five Laws of Library Science because somewhere deep down I have long been annoyed that these famous library principles restrict us (perhaps not literally, but by connotation) to books.  Rather than restrict us to any format at all, I came up with a revision like this:

  1. Information is for use.
  2. For every question, an answer.
  3. For every answer, a question.
  4. Save the time of the information seeker.
  5. Knowledge is a growing organism.

For my purposes, I am defining information very simply as “the answer to a question” and information seekers as “people with questions”.  These questions might be anything from “What is the sun made of?” to “Who else is on Facebook chat right now?”  A book might answer the first question but cannot possibly answer the second.

Yes, I know “information” is a loaded term with a long history of debated definitions.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of a better term to use.  “Knowledge” is just as fuzzy – in my visual-thinking brain, I imagine Knowledge as the older, more mature sister of giddy, high-strung Information.

What I like about this version is that I can (more easily) apply it to far more scenarios in the library because the medium carrying the information is altogether removed.  This also serves as a reminder to me (and as a geek, I need it) that it’s not about the gadget, silly.  Books are gadgets, iPads are another gadget.  Jason Griffey has elegantly pointed out that the distinction between content and container is becoming more important, but I disagree with him on one key point.  He says “We already know, more or less, how to deal with content.”  I think it’s the opposite — I think we’ve been so focused for so long on curating the containers that we lost sight of just how significant the content is.  With the Open Access movement, content seems to be slowly getting the proper attention again.  But if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the containers – the books and gadgets – then the star-crossed destinies of questions and answers will be reduced to financial transactions.