RSS feed aggregator and news reader NetNewsWire released its first (and then second) public beta of the next major version of the software, numbered 2.1. Version 2.1b16 was released during the day, followed quickly by 2.1b17 after a few bugs were quickly fixed and found.
One of NetNewsWire’s key differentiating features among other RSS feed wranglers is synchronization, which enables you to use a copy of the program on different computers and, with some effort, keep both the feeds you subscribe to and the news items you’ve already marked as read in some sort of coordination. Supporting sync files can be written to either .Mac (for subscribers) or to an FTP server.
But this synchronization was never perfected. It wasn’t based on atomic transactions, so deleting a feed via NetNewsWire on one machine wouldn’t delete it from a corresponding machine. I also regularly saw items that I had marked as read at work appear as unread at home. These were minor carps, however, because I knew that developer Brent Simmons would ultimately solve these problems.
Instead of building the Web-based infrastructure that would make NetNewsWire more flexible (providing a way to read news online) and more accurate in synchronization, Brent sold NetNewsWire to NewsGator, one of the leading Web-based feed reading firms, and joined the company. NewsGator had a robust infrastructure that can handle large numbers of users and reduces the overall strain on RSS infrastructure by polling or retrieving items as necessary for all subscribers only once, regardless of the number of subscriptions. (For those of us who live and die by readership, this does reduce our ability to know how many unique visitors we have reading our feeds, but it’s a good trade-off.)
Subscriptions to NewsGator are free for Web-only usage, with fees from $3.95 to $7.95 for handheld, phone, and Windows Outlook newsreading depending on options. These subscriptions include limited access to paid content, too.
NetNewsWire 2.1 now uses the NewsGator infrastructure. First, sign up for a NewsGator account if you don’t already have one. Next, choose Show Sync Options from the File menu. The Account tab offers NewsGator as an option in the Sync Using pop-up menu. It also lets you name locations; the default name is taken from your computer’s Rendezvous (10.3) or Bonjour (10.4) name. (NetNewsWire works in 10.3.9 and later ostensibly, but a bug in the beta prevents Panther access at the moment.)
The Starting Over tab of the Show Sync Options dialog box lets you seed your feeds if you’re already using NetNewsWire. From my work computer, I chose to Replace Subscriptions on NewsGator Online. I have 228 feeds, and this operation took several minutes, but was completed accurately.
Now for the best part. The mechanism by which NewsGator and NetNewsWire synchronize is no longer a slow, modal process that must be manually invoked or scheduled. Rather, at every refresh, your NewsGator account is updated via a series of tiny transactions. The same is true when you create groups, remove or add feeds, or mark items read.
NewsGator also reduces the load on your Internet connection because NetNewsWire now first polls NewsGator to check whether a given feed has been updated since the last check. NewsGator’s centralized feed observation can tell NetNewsWire whether or not to retrieve the feed using a few bytes instead of hundreds or even thousands. NetNewsWire is noticeably faster as a result and should be much more usable on slower connections, such as 56K dial-up connections.
So far, the beta has worked flawlessly on my work and home computers, including refreshing my home computer’s feed from NewsGator and rearranging items in folders in NetNewsWire. As I tried feeds into folders, I could see those changes a few seconds later when I refresh the NewsGatorOnline tab on the company’s Web site.
NetNewsWire 2.1 goes a long way towards making RSS feed management and news reading a seamless and organized task. Perhaps I don’t need 228 feeds – I begin to have the overload factor that led me to RSS aggregation in the first place – but I can already more reliably see what I’ve read and remove feeds that are past their prime.