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Feeds into Reads: Transforming RSS into Beauty

Newsreader software takes RSS feeds and presents the latest news articles, blog posts, and other items in a newest-first list layout. But many people I know either have never cared for the email-like organization scheme of RSS readers, or never got into RSS at all because they prefer to see a Web page. (And then there’s Adam Engst, our fearless leader, who finds the vastness of innumerable headlines that he feels he should read overwhelming and thus avoids newsreaders entirely.)

Newsreader naysayers take heart, however. The iPad is bringing a new approach to feed reading that may transform our relationship with the myriad updates we get. It could win some converts.

Two programs in particular are promising, and I expect if they perform well in the App Store marketplace, we’ll see many more alternatives for the iPad and its smaller brethren, as well as osmosis from the iOS side back into Mac OS X.

Times for iPad and Flipboard take streams of updates and create newspaper and magazine layouts automatically. This approach works better than it may sound at first. Automatic layout seems like an iffy proposition, but both programs produce interesting results.

All the RSS That’s Fit to Print — The $7.99 Times for iPad from Acrylic Software comes populated with science, technology, arts and entertainment, and sports tabs. Each tab reveals a view of multi-column news briefs. You can set the display of each column, make it wider or narrower, and add your own RSS feeds. (There doesn’t appear to be a way to rearrange feeds from top to bottom in the current version, unfortunately; you have to delete and re-enter them in the order you want.)

You can also set how many articles are displayed. Each view’s pages can extend further to the right, too, to add more columns.

Tap an item, and it opens the RSS preview, with any associated images or media. In landscape view – but not portrait view, oddly – buttons appear to open the item in Safari, add the item to a global shelf of articles in the app (a kind of news clipping area), and share the item via email, Twitter, and Facebook.

The makers of Times for iPad already plan a Mac OS X version.

Flip-Flying Away — The free Flipboard is far more limited in what you can add, but it’s also more beautiful and varied in its presentation – it’s more magazine than newspaper. It comes preset with several feeds. You can have up to 9 source feeds, shown in a grid of squares, on the first page and 12 on subsequent pages.

When you launch the program, it shows an image at full-screen size like a cover. Swipe from the right edge to the left, and the contents page opens up with the nine squares. Any source can be changed, but at the moment, you can choose only among feeds provided by Flipboard Inc., or you can add Twitter lists or individuals.

When you tap a source’s square, Flipboard opens a page that includes teaser text of linked items, along with images. For Twitter, that’s rather remarkable, because any item someone links in a 140-character-or-less tweet is turned into the full item itself.

Tap the item, and it opens up into its own page, and shows any other references to the destination or tweet in a sidebar as commentary. You can also tap a Read on Web button to view the full article in its original Web context (that’s how Flipboard avoids displeasing news sources).

Articles and items can be shared via email and Twitter, and you can mark a tweet as a favorite within the item view.

Both apps have opened my eyes about the way in which streams of information can be dealt with graphically. Although I follow hundreds of feeds in my RSS reader, I find myself using it less and less, because the sheer volume, even when I scan and mark as read, is overwhelming. (I can hear Adam chortling even as I type this.)

By giving me a varied look and showing me items in some context, rather than in isolation, I find reading RSS feeds in these apps much easier on both my eyes and my brain. In the end, I’m reading again, instead of scanning.

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