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NewsGator Switches Users to Google Reader for Sync, Online RSS

NewsGator has announced that it has adopted Google Reader as its sole synchronization platform, will drop MobileMe sync, and will discontinue its longstanding online RSS reader, NewsGator Online Reader. The popular Macintosh RSS reader NetNewsWire, starting with the 3.2 release, will include ads except for paid users. The transition is underway, and NewsGator’s reader and sync services will stop working on 31-Aug-09.

This news has prompted a variety of strong responses – especially because the company tried to bill this as positive news – though given the company’s recent trajectory, shock shouldn’t be one of them.

What’s Gone and Why — NewsGator Online Reader, NewsGator Go for Blackberry and Windows Mobile, and NewsGator Inbox (for Outlook) will all cease to exist on 31-Aug-09. Newsgator’s Browser Toolbar, the Desktop Notifier, Blogroll, Ratings, and Headlines features have all been eliminated.

Users of NetNewsWire for Mac and the Windows-only FeedDemon can now download new versions that have Google Reader synchronization; an iPhone update is coming. NewsGator will provide users instructions and in-product reminders to help them make the transition. The Mac version, in beta, and the upcoming iPhone versions have new icons and add support for Instapaper.

Finally, while the 3.2 beta version of NetNewsWire is ad-supported, NewsGator has not yet said what an ad-free version will cost, nor is it clear whether the free version will have fewer features than a paid or enterprise version. (The 3.2b6 release showed ads, which were disabled shortly thereafter with the promise that ads wouldn’t return until you could buy your way out of displaying them.)

NewsGator has really been a corporate software supplier for the last few years, with the consumer portion acting as a calling card. The company made its well-regarded Mac, Windows, and online newsreaders free last year because it was more important to get the software in front of enterprise users than to generate revenue from that part of the business (see “NewsGator Turns NetNewsWire Loose for Free“, 2008-01-09).

This latest move is part and parcel of the firm’s transition away from the consumer market, but has caused extra irritation because of the abruptness and scale of the shift. One can’t criticize a firm for deciding that the expense of operating a zero-revenue set of synchronization servers was too much given its current business. But several decisions are just plain irritating.

The Missing Sync, and Clippings, and Folders — Many people may not care about the decision to switch users to Google Reader for sync and Web access, but others are mourning the loss of features that this move dictates. This may include organizing feeds into nested folders, clippings, and support for storing sync files on MobileMe. Google Reader offers only a single level of folder organization, and the service doesn’t support Clippings.

The Clippings feature allows a user to save an article and have that synced across multiple copies and the online site, and was initially not available in the 3.2 beta (release 6), but appeared on 03-Aug-09 in release 13, although still without sync. It’s unclear how NewsGator will restore the sync part of the feature.

NetNewsWire developer Brent Simmons recommends Instapaper as an alternative. Simmons also wrote that he’s working on a scheme to use dashes to indicate folder nesting in a way that’s compatible with Google Reader.

Simmons said via email that MobileMe sync was dropped, at least temporarily, because it would work only under Mac OS X, and not for the same user who wanted to read feeds from an iPhone or via a Web browser at various times. Simmons also said that MobileMe support could be brought back at least temporarily if there were enough interest, which apparently hasn’t yet been expressed.

As you can see, the situation with regard to particular features is fluid, and the company and Simmons haven’t settled on what’s going to happen. That’s because NetNewsWire 3.2 is still in beta, which seems like a terrible point at which to make this synchronization change.

NewsGator is unwisely recommending that its Mac users switch to what it called the latest release of NetNewsWire, but which is in fact a beta – a beta that calls out on the download page, “It’s still a beta, though: it’s unfinished software, with bugs – known and unknown – and incomplete features. We say this not to scare you off but to inform.”

While other companies routinely release public betas for testing, along with warnings such as the one provided above by Simmons, it’s unheard of in our experience at TidBITS for a firm to tell active users to switch to a beta as their primary tool unless something is simply so broken that users otherwise wouldn’t have access to a critical feature. That is not the case here.

Further, while this beta is advertised as essentially transitioning NewsGator sync to Google Reader, some users who already use Google Reader found their feeds and organization at Google destroyed and unrecoverable after a sync. Khoi Vinh, the New York Times designer and author of the Subtraction blog, vents about the lack of explanation that Google Reader feeds could be blown away. Again, this is a problem with advertising beta software as a generally available release.

There’s also concern about the switch to Google Reader as the sole option for sync. While NewsGator says that Google Reader support has been a popular request, an increasing number of people are becoming uncomfortable in having all their online eggs in one basket, with Google search, email, documents, and other features working at no cost but at the discretion of the firm.

Finally, it’s very odd to explain that NetNewsWire will have free and paid versions without explaining what happens to previously paid users of 3.x releases, what it will cost, and what the difference between fee and free versions will be.

Let a Thousand RSS Readers Re-Bloom — Here at TidBITS, we have thousands of readers using NewsGator Online and NetNewsWire (about 15 percent of our RSS subscribers) and it’s concerning to see NetNewsWire and its companion products become yet another thing from Google that many people rely on without tech support.

Hopefully though, this will breathe new life into the market for RSS readers, a field that suffered significantly in the wake of NetNewsWire being released for free. Other RSS readers are still under development, but there’s been a general stagnation.

In an era of scarce attention, one might expect the RSS reader to expand its horizons in a couple of directions. Using attention data, like tracking what we read in what fashion (in the reader or by clicking to open a Web page), items of greater importance could be presented in that fashion – Cynical Peak Software’s Cyndicate offers this feature now. The tag clouds that show popular keywords and phrases on blogs and elsewhere could be tied in, along with other tools to make it simpler to see what’s important without reading every headline.

Further down the attention spectrum, integration of Twitter and Facebook seem like a potentially perfect complement for some users and some kinds of results.

NewsGator made a kind of promise when it took a popular software category and made it impossible for a commercial application to survive: that the firm was committed to this for the long haul. Business exigencies may have changed that commitment, but the firm has done a poor job communicating about the situation and offering users a smooth transition.

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