My favorite and most-used piece of Mac software, NetNewsWire, released a new version this week. NetNewsWire (whose parent company is NewsGator) is probably the finest RSS software on the planet, with best-of-class apps on each platform. As I alluded in a tweet, this both excites me terribly and implants the fear of change in me. It’s been a long time coming; the iPhone version has been rotting in AppStore approval hell for at least a month, and I’ve been holding off on new NNW for Mac betas until I could cross-sync over Google Reader onto my iPhone. I upgraded immediately.
It’s been a disappointment. I realize change is hard to deal with, so that was unsurprising, but as a technologist by profession I started wondering why I was having such a bad experience with it. What kind of lessons can we take from this? What has NewsGator done right, and what does the new version fall flat on?
Love NewsGator, love their devs (led by fearless Brent Simmons), and still love NetNewsWire. I’m trying my best to make this a study in abstract rather than a direct assault on NNW itself.
Okay, let’s get cracking.
NetNewsWire for iPhone had been effectively the same version for a little over two years, if memory serves me. It predates AppStore. Their first Cocoa app was nearly a 1:1 port of their initial web app, which itself came out early on the scene once Apple detailed more specific WebKit hooks to make Safari more app-like. It was almost frustratingly basic:
A flat list view split out by feed that let you drill further down into each feed’s new items. We’ve lived with this day in, day out, with little to no changes until this week. It wasn’t for lack of want; as my most-used app, yeah, I wouldn’t mind some new updates, a little extra pizazz. But what I’ve come to realize is that by going this route they’re able to leverage the notion popularized by 37signals: Half, Not Half-Assed. Part of the 37signals ethos is that you do the bare minimum to start with, partially because it’s easier and simpler to implement, but also because it appeals to a broader audience. By releasing a simple foundation, you encourage users to develop their own workarounds, their own methodologies while using your app.
This is important when building something like an RSS app. My methodology is flat: no folders, sparse usage of “clippings” or “starred” stories, and I read every story that crosses my inbox. My boss is the opposite: very hierarchical, broken into topical folders, less of an “inbox zero” methodology. It becomes difficult to build an app that satisfies both of us, unless you break down the problem into a simplistic, unambiguous presentation. Whereas NetNewsWire v1 was an open-ended framework that let you work as you’d please, NetNewsWire v2 has a different expectation of how you use it, and my existing patterns have broken because of it.
Let’s look at the home screen.
Since I enjoy reading everything in the pile, right off the bat I notice I have one new feed I’d like to read. Unfortunately, NNW has decided that I want to see them sorted alphabetically, so that one news item is now lost in the stack. I tap “Latest” in hopes to find that.
Well, it should be somewhere. Unfortunately, there’s no real good way to jump straight to whatever’s the newest unread item. That button somewhat exists, but only if I tap on an unrelated story and tap the “Next Unread” button (which doesn’t go in reverse and it doesn’t disappear if you’ve read everything). I also lose all the context of what feed I’m reading by getting everything collapsed in one giant stack. Part of the reason I can afford to read everything is that I don’t read them all… that is, if I’m reading the feed of a typical aggregator, I know I can just browse headlines, tap “mark all as read” since I assume the story will bubble up in other blogs if it’s newsworthy, and then move onto the next feed with unread stories. That entire process is unattainable now.
Again, it’s important not to lose sight of the main issue here. The little things can all be fixed, over time, through bug fixes, new feature additions, or new user preferences (all of which mean added development time and slower time-to-market). It’s that broad picture view that I’m having difficulty awarding NewsGator a win. They had a great, flexible platform that molded people’s expectations for years, and that’s a horrible thing to waste. It’s also very hard to attain. In a manner of speaking, it takes balls to singularly focus on one attainable goal and ship it. Even more importantly to maintain it.
The astute among you will, at some point, mention that another one of 37signal’s core values is to make opinionated software, and that NewsGator is now putting out good software that has a clear opinion attached to it. Generally, I agree. Opinionated software is a good thing. But the problem is if your opinion changes. Or, to be slightly more accurate, if you go from having no opinion to having an opinion. If 37signals suddenly decided that Campfire isn’t really great for the web, but that Campfire is an ethos that should live in the cloud through a combination of IM, IRC, and email, go right ahead- that’s a great opinion to have. It’s just a terrible opinion to have once you’ve set expectations to the contrary.
Whether NewsGator will adapt NetNewsWire to something I’m more comfortable with remains to be seen, just as whether I’ll grow more comfortable with the new NetNewsWire way of doing things remains to be seen. Like most things, it’ll probably meet somewhere in the middle and I’ll remain a giddy little fanboy. Take a look around, though. It’s got all the good stuff in it: design, UI, technology, and human expectations. Mix ‘em all up and it’s just another one of those stubborn little fun problems in our industry.