2012-02-16

In which Google Reader gets replaced

As I mentioned last week, Google has a bit of a bad smell these days...

It's funny, looking back at that post and the list of smells I complained about, that I somehow managed to forget the one smell that actually bothers me every single day:

I can't believe I left that one out!

This week, I decided to experiment with some Free Software alternatives to Google Reader. The one I am testing at the moment, is Tiny Tiny RSS.

Combined with PageKite and an Android app, Tiny Tiny RSS has the potential to do everything Google Reader did and more - using only Free Software and running on a computer that is fully under my control.

Here are my thoughts so far on how the two compare.

The Google Reader I Liked

I have been using Google Reader for many years. It solved two problems for me, and it solved them really, really well:

One, was to skim large volumes of news. I really like their on-line user interface and I really like the Android app. This still works really well, and especially the Android app has been getting better over time.

Two, I used Google Reader to manage feeds, aggregate multiple feeds into one and for bookmarking and sharing interesting sites. Google Reader would let me re-export any category as an RSS feed and it also had a "Shared in Reader" feed which I could add to at any time by either pressing a button in Reader or the Android app, or by using a bookmarklet on any site on the web. This was by far the most convenient way I have found to curate my own collection of interesting links.

Google Reader's Fall From Grace

This second use case, bookmarking and sharing, is what Google broke when they decided to push Google Plus. They removed the ability to "share" articles within Reader and they broke the "Note in Reader" bookmarklet. The idea was to push people to sharing over Google Plus instead.

(I don't like being pushed around, so this was when I decided it was time to find a free-as-in-freedom alternative.)

But even before the scent of Google Plus started to permeate everything, Reader had two other flaws which I tolerated, but was never quite happy with.

The first is common to all cloud solutions: Reading news while off-line was impossible. This matters mostly when traveling - but I really like to read when traveling, and at times in my life I have traveled a great deal!

The other problem with Reader was I never felt I could trust it with password-protected, private feeds. I would actually like to keep track of quite a few such feeds, both work-related and personal. As an example, for a long time I had a password-protected section on this blog where I wrote about my personal life. I never felt comfortable enough to use Google Reader to keep track of peoples' comments in the private section, I had to just keeping reloading the page...

This mistrust was actually justified just last month, when I noticed that the GoogleBot was spidering works-in-progress on the PageKite website. The only explanation I have found for this, is that I used Google Reader and some semi-private RSS feeds to monitor activity on the site, so I wouldn't miss a new forum topic or comment on some random wiki page. It seems that once a feed is in Reader, the Google Bot knows about it too, even if there are no links to the content on the public web.

(This is a rather significant privacy issue, which anyone who thinks a secret or obfuscated URL is "private enough" should keep in mind. If the link ends up in any Google product, the Google Bot may find out about it and then the whole world will know...)

Enter Tiny Tiny RSS!

Tiny Tiny RSS is in active development and there are Debian packages available (from their own repo), which are two of the things I always look for when choosing new software. The software is written in PHP (ick) and can use either PostgreSQL or MySQL as a database.

I decided to install TT-RSS on my laptop, so the database will stay private and I will be able to read news even when I am offline. This solves both of the problems I had with the pre-Google-Plus Reader.

Installation went without a hitch. I had to edit the config file in /etc/tt-rss-mysql/ to enable multi-user support and on-line account creation in order to get a password-protected account. The Debian packages integrated TT-RSS very cleanly with my Apache config, which in turn made TT-RSS instantly visible on my laptop's public PageKite address. Awesome!

Tiny Tiny RSS was able to import Google Reader's OPML dump (the fact that Google offer this export is one of the reasons I don't consider them evil yet, just a bit smelly) without a hitch, meaning I didn't have to waste any time re-subscribing and re-organizing my feeds.

So far, so good. Next, I went looking for an Android client...

TT-RSS Android Apps

Tiny Tiny RSS actually has two different Android clients available in the Android Market. One is created by Andrew Dolgov, the author of TT-RSS. The other, (TTRSS-Reader), is currently maintained by Nils Braden. Both are open source.

Even though I run TT-RSS on my laptop, the Android apps were both able to communicate with it thanks to PageKite. TTRSS-Reader did a slightly better job handling my PageKite's SSL certificate, I had to tell Andrew's app to "accept any certificate", which isn't really OK from a security point of view.

So far I also prefer TTRSS-Reader's user interface. It's not as slick as Google's offering, but it's still quite nice. All that is missing is widgets on the home screen to let me know when there is new news to be read...

TT-RSS: Problems So Far

The worst news so far, is that Tiny Tiny RSS doesn't seem to do as good a job as Google Reader did managing feeds. It does allow me to "star" articles I like and then republish that list as an RSS feed, but that's all I could get it to do. There are some note-taking and archiving features built-in, but they didn't seem immediately useful.

I miss the ability to:

  1. Get a publicly visible aggregate RSS feed for any category I create.
  2. Make notes and include random sites from the WWW in my "starred articles" list.

The first would probably be best solved by hacking on the TT-RSS source code, which might be fun but I probably don't have time for any time soon.

The second may be best solved by a minimal external RSS-authoring tool. I could probably hack one together, along with a Javascript bookmarklet, in an evening or two. We'll see!

Finally, the TT-RSS interface is definitely not as nice as Google Reader's and I find that TT-RSS is frustratingly slow, even though I'm just talking to my own laptop. But it is usable and I think I'll get used to it. Since most of the time I read news using my Android phone, the slowness of the web UI probably won't matter so much in practice.

Of course, since TT-RSS is an active proejct (or is it?), any or all of these issues may get better with time. I may also figure out solutions to some of them as I get more familiar with the software.

(If I had a bathtub full of money, I'd pay a designer to spruce up the TT-RSS user-interface and Android apps, a hacker to fix the sharing limitations and a tech-writer to document Tiny Tiny RSS properly. These problems are all very fixable.)

Conclusion

Overall, I'm happy.

It looks like combining Tiny Tiny RSS, TTRSS-Reader and PageKite will be good enough to break my Google Reader habit and bring my news consumption out of the cloud and onto my laptop.

I will have to live with a somewhat clunkier user-interface, but I've gained some real benefits instead. The setup needs some work and will take some getting used to, but overall, this is a huge step in the right direction. Hooray!



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