Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is RSS Mainstream Ready?


I'm not quite sure where my dad lies on the adoption curve.

He loves trying new things... Laying around the Dad-pad, you'll find:

- A $400 Archos portable media player (he's never used)
- A $500 programmable digital touchscreen entertainment center remote control he had to hire somebody to program (we never use because it broke and there's nobody to program the new replacement)
- A Sony Vaio laptop (he uses once a year)
- A brand new Thinkpad X41 Tablet (he's had for months and is waiting for "spare time to practice" before using it)
- An HP photo printer (he's never used)
- About a hundred shrinkwrapped DVDs (he's never watched)
- An abandoned blogging effort (lasted about 11 days)

So, given Dad's love for new things, I figured I'd spend a few minutes this morning showing him how I read RSS feeds through Bloglines.

Of course, he loves the idea and wants to try it!

Now, while Bloglines is a great service and works well for me, I wouldn't exactly call it usable for the average user. I figured we should try setting him up with one of the newer, more mainstream services.

First, we tried Windows Live. We signed him up for a Passport account, and began setting up a few RSS feeds. Most of the news sites he wants to subscribe to provide a concise list of about 10-20 feeds. The Live.com RSS search feature returned a horrible list -- nothing like the lists on their sites. So, I manually copied and pasted a few specific feeds into Live.com for him.

The next problem with Live.com was that the feed we subscribed to is named "News". My Dad and I didn't know which "News" feed we were reading, and there was no way to rename it!

Finally, the biggest issue, was that Live.com doesn't mark feeds as read, and only seems to display 5 feeds. I'm getting the impression by this point that it's not meant to be a news aggregator, but rather uses RSS to provide a little value-add here and there to its portal. I'm not sure it's all that useful, but hey, time will tell!

Next, we tried Google Reader. Google Reader was definitely better as a content aggregator, but still didn't meet Dad's needs. It also wouldn't let us rename the feed from "News" to something else, and the information architecture/navigation model is a bit difficult to get used to. I love keyboard shortcuts, but Dad will never use them. While tagging is cool, he's never gonna use it (at least not for another 2-3 years?). Dad loves Gmail, but Reader was too far out of left field.

So finally, Dad suggested we just try Bloglines. I set his feeds up there (Bloglines also doesn't allow you to rename "News" to something else), and let him play around with it. Bloglines has major usability issues (for example, upon loading bloglines.com, how is my dad supposed to know to go to the tiny "My Feeds" tab, and to create a new folder, you need to add a feed, then use the "Create In" dropdown box to select "New Folder", and enter a name in a Javascript dialogue box -- come on, guys!). But hey, we'll see how it works out for him.

In any event, it became clear to me very quickly that the biggest hurdle to RSS adoption by mainstream folks like Dad is going to be adding feeds. Right now, Dad has to find the url to the RSS feed (incredibly difficult), then copy it, then paste it into the right one of many obscure form fields in any of these interfaces. Discoverability is something that browsers (IE7, Firefox, etc) are working on bigtime, but as far as I know, they only add the RSS feed to the local store. Dad wants his feeds in sync on his home and work computers. Some services are working around this by providing "Add to My Yahoo!, Add to Bloglines" type links next to feed icons - a hack that won't scale. I'd propose an "rss://" application handler or similar, that could be bound to any RSS service or software. Does it exist today?

Well, that's all I've got! It's a sunny day in sunny Los Angeles, and time to get off the laptop and enjoy the beautiful weather. In the meantime, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts! Is RSS ready for my Dad?

And lastly, why can't RSS feeds be renamed like bookmarks/favorites can? Hmm...

4 comments:

Randy said...

Bloglines has a bookmarkable java applet that allows you to "subscribe with bloglines" by clicking on the bookmark (or in my case the firefox toolbar item I have it set to).

I believe the URL for this feature is http://www.bloglines.com/help/easysub?tip=6

The applet will check the website for the available RSS feeds, and if multiple ones exists, prompts you to choose one. It works fairly well though I'd walk your dad through it as it's not totally obvious to use for newbies.

adamjh said...

Thanks randy! That's definitely a useful feature and a step in the right direction. I'll set it up for my Dad and see what he thinks.

At first glance, my biggest concern is that it seems to be searching Bloglines for known feeds. For example, if I click the javascript button on www.haaretz.com, a number of feeds show up. If I click it on www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pages/rss.html (the page with all the feeds), none show up.

What would really make sense to me... would be a way for the browser to allow you to discover feeds, then add them to an arbitrary RSS reading service/app instead of to the browser's own RSS store (similar to how mailto:// can be bound to Outlook, or to Gmail).

Anyhow, thanks again for making me aware of that feature. I definitely will walk Dad through it, and see what happens. :-)

Josh said...

You can edit the names of feeds as well as the folders they appear in on bloglines.

Click the Edit link on the My Feeds tab, then click on the feed or folder you want to rename. It will open a popup, which made it seem to me like it wasn't working because Firefox was blocking the popups. But that was a quick fix and then voila, a place to change the name of the feed or folder.

adamjh said...

Wow - thanks josh! You're absolutely right!

I'll chalk this one up to user error on my part.