Reeder: A Google Reader iPad App That Beats the Original

November 14, 2010

As (both) regular readers of this blog are aware, I took the plunge and bought an iPad a few months ago. Like so many others, I’ve found the device to be ideal for reading just about anything, from 300-word blog posts to entire books.

Indeed, since the day I brought the device home and started playing with it, one of the four icons locked in the bottom of my iPad’s home screen was a link to the mobile-optimized version of Google Reader, which has a decent UI more or less consistent with the desktop experience.

Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered an app called Reeder, which swiftly bumped the official Google Reader mobile Web app from that coveted home screen slot.

Catch Up On Reading Offline

I was lucky enough to discover Reeder about 12 hours before I got on a 7-hour, WiFi-less flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Unlike Google Reader itself, Reeder loads all of your unread items and stores them locally so you can read them offline later, something that really comes in handy when you’re travelling sans WiFi.

Of course, you’ll still have to save for later any partial feed items (ie, ones that require you to click back to the original site to read the entire post), but any content included in each RSS feed items is accessible offline. Reeder also supports offline starring, sharing and marking as read/unread, and will sync with your Google Reader account the next time your iPad connects to the Internet.

A Clean, Well-Designed User Interface

Reeder is one of those applications whose developers clearly put particular effort into designing an exceptional, engaging user experience. I never had a major problem with Google Reader’s native UI, but having been spoiled by Reeder’s I’m going to have a hard time going back to the original.

Reeder’s design reminds me a bit of Instapaper, but with a more fluid, swipe-and-slide-style interface. It has a paper-like feel, with clean typography and adjustable font sizes.

Most of the core functionality of Google Reader is supported, including sharing items, adding notes, marking as read/unread and starring items. Additionally, Reeder lets you post items to Delicious, Instapaper and ReadItLater, as well as copy the original article’s URL so you can share it on your own terms.

Navigating through unread items feels more natural in Reeder. When you first open the app, you’re presented with what resembles stacks of papers in an array (each stack representing a feed or folder of feed from your Google Reader account). Tapping a stack opens it with a slick animation.

From there, you can either browse through unread items in a list not unlike the original Google Reader or page through them by scrolling down to the bottom of each item, holding and releasing.

In horizontal mode, the app lists feed items on the left and displays the body of the current item on the right. For a more magazine-like experience, you can turn the iPad into portrait position to hide the left-hand navigation and focus on the content.

What You Can’t Do

There’s very little you can’t do with Reeder, compared to the native Google Reader interface. One limitation is that you can’t view Google Reader’s recommend items from the app, for whatever reason. That’s probably not a deal-killer for most, but I actually enjoy browsing the recommendations from time to time, and tend to discover some pretty good stuff there.

Of course, power users of Google Reader on the desktop who are accustomed to using keyboard shortcuts are going to be somewhat disappointed with just about any mobile adaptation of the service.

The only other notable limitation is the inability to subscribe to new feeds from within the app, but that’s not something that’s typically done via mobile devices anyway.

The application is also available for iPhone and a desktop application for Macs is coming any day now.

Reeder for iPad is available from the app store for $4.99. Totally worth it.


Why Ping Sucks

October 5, 2010


I had actually drafted a few-hundred-word post about why I think Ping, the “social network” baked into iTunes, is useless, but this dialogue box just about nails it.


Wait, Why Did PA Hire an Israeli Counter-Terror Firm to Spy on Nonviolent Protests?

September 16, 2010

As you likely heard, PA Gov. Ed Rendell angrily ended a contract yesterday with a Philly-based firm called the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response after it came to light that they were involved in spying on local activists of all kinds.

The organization offers an array of “counter-terrorism” services, including training in “Israeli-style” combat tactics, emergency response management, and intelligence gathering.

On their Website, they boast a “24/7, global, multi-lingual intelligence team – the Targeted Actionable Monitoring Center (TAM-C) – whose forte is actionable intelligence which gives organizations the ability to prevent future threats”. Presumably, these are the folks that were scoping candlelight vigils and gay festivals.

They also offer a customized service called Threat and Hazard Monitoring, which utilizes a “team of ‘information miners’ and on-the-ground resources” to “constantly scan open and closed sources of information” for threats and “leverages ITRR’s international contacts and sources to provide live intelligence from the field.”

In other words, professional spies for hire. And these guys are no joke. According to their LinkedIn profiles, several employees are veterans of the Israeli military, intelligence and local police forces and have real-world counter-terrorism experience. Pretty hardcore.

This firm was hired by the state government. They have an assortment of products and services that they offer. Clearly, somebody had to select which services they’d be hired to perform (eg, “Threat and Hazard Monitoring”). So, who told these guys to go spy on animal rights activists and anti-drilling protesters? Or did they just up and do it without being told?


Owning an iPad: My First Impressions

August 24, 2010

This weekend, I caved in and bought an iPad.

When it first launched in April, I was highly skeptical of its usefulness for somebody who already owns a laptop and a smart phone, and even more critical of the closed, limited nature of the platform. As the months went on, two things gradually warmed me up: 1) I got to play with one a few times and 2) I began to recognize a gaping void in my digital life: a dedicated device for reading, other than my phone.

Yes, I was tempted by the Kindle’s $139 price point and e-ink display, but I needed something that renders PDF’s exceptionally well and on which I can continue to use tools like InstaPaper and Google Reader.

Here are my initial thoughts:

In 24 hours, the iPad has already begun to revolutionize the way in which I consume information. The much-hyped Flipboard app alone is nearly worth the purchase of the device. Everything you’ve heard about Flipboard is true: It’s very cool and mind-blowingly well-designed.

Tired of waiting for the paperback, I bought the Kindle version of Jeff Jarvis’s “What Would Google Do?” and am already anxious to move onto other titles. I’m also loading all of the newspaper industry white papers and Web design books I’ve long had only in PDF format into iBooks, which renders them perfectly. I already get the impression that what I keep hearing is true: owning a device like this is going to substantially increase the amount of book-reading I do.

Whether I’m using the Kindle or iBooks (or Nook for that matter), it’s huge that the reading I do on my iPad can easily be picked up on my iPhone, which is on my person at all times. This kind of weaves the book-reading experience more directly my life, which I like.

The experience of reading on the iPad is less tedious than it is on one’s phone, yet without all the desktop distractions of 15 browser tabs and real-time notifications of emails, tweets and Facebook comments (I could enable push notifications on my iPad, but won’t). And of course being able to hold it in your hand makes it easy to sit on the couch with it and just read.

Somehow, the device has already established itself as a zone into which I can go to get some reading (and writing) done without distractions. To me, the app-based, limited ecosystem I initially hated the idea of actually kind of works in this context. It’s not without it’s disadvantages (more on that in a minute), but by and large the device fills the need I had for it.

While the bulk of my apps are geared toward reading (my home screen includes InstaPaper, Google Reader, iBooks, Kindle, Mashable, HuffPo, NYTimes and FlipBoard), I’ve also started playing with apps for services I use professionally, like DropBox and GoToMeeting
(which is pretty awesome), as well as some music-related apps, Netflix and others.

It’s also great for writing, especially if you happen to have an external keyboard for it; I was expecting Apple to force me to shell out for their proprietary iPad keyboard, but was delighted to learn that the Bluetooth keyboard I already owned works. I’m okay with using Notes and WordPress for writing, but would love it if Google Docs files were editable (Google’s fault, not Apple’s).

I don’t plan on overloading this device with apps. For me, its more about reading and productivity than games and social networking. I’m content with just a screen and a half of apps, plus the Web browser. Even the music I’m loading into the device is more conducive
to focusing: minimal, sometimes ambient music, some jazz, nothing with too many lyrics.

The iPad has its share of downsides and frustrations. It’s amazing for consuming content but, as many others have pointed out, is not so great at producing much beyond blog posts. Since I bought it primarily as an eReader, this isn’t the end of the world, but how awesome would it be if you could use a tablet computer like this to build Web apps, record and mix audio, shoot video and run something more powerful than Photoshop Express for graphics? Yes, there are some apps that enable creativity, but this is one area in which the desktop computer still excels dramatically.

Some other seemingly unnecessary annoyances:

  • It doesn’t have a camera
  • It doesn’t have a USB port
  • No mini-display port for watching on a larger screen or TV (Come on, guys.)
  • If I may get so nitpicky, I wish I could share items in Google Reader from any page in Safari, like I can in Firefox on the desktop.

There are a handful of little things that pop up from time to that are just easier to do on a laptop or desktop computer, but I imagine those things will improve with time.

Also worth noting: The iPad feels rather fragile, at least at first. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little heavy, and very portable by design. I know that if I accidentally drop it, there’s a very strong probability that the screen will break (something the warranty doesn’t cover). I’ve got a screen cover and protective skin coming in the mail, but in the meantime I’m a little hesitant to take the iPad with me to work or leave it anywhere where the cats could decide it’s something I bought for them.

As handy as the iPad and similar devices are for reading, I do not believe this is the death of print… yet. In the same bag that I brought the iPad home in, I also carried a few print magazines from Barnes & Noble. There’s still something to be said for reading a long article on paper, although I suspect owning an eReader will make this already rare event in my life occur even less frequently.

As far as books go, I look at it like music: 99% of the music I listen to is comprised of digital files or music streamed over the Internet. But I still buy my favorite records on vinyl, partially as a keepsake and partially because the sound is often superior to most MP3’s.

Similarly, I fully expect the vast majority of my reading to be done in a digital format, but I’ll always have a physical bookshelf in my house. It does seem inevitable that the economics of book publishing will one day favor e-books over printing, binding, shipping and storing physical books, at least as far as mass market books are concerned. (As a side note, there’s an excellent pair of posts by Richard MacManus over at ReadWriteWeb weighing the pros and cons of eBooks.)

This thing will suit my needs for now, despite its limitations. What I’m more excited about is seeing where tablet computers go in the next few years, especially as companies like Google, Microsoft and players yet to be born improve on what Apple has produced.

If you’re an iPad user, what must-have apps would you recommend?


My new gig: ReadWriteWeb

July 5, 2010

For last few years, my career has been decidedly on the technical side. As the Webmaster for a small newspaper company, things like HTML, SEO, information architecture and bug-fixing make up my day-to-day experience, among much else (like everybody working in this industry, I wear a multitude of hats). While I very much enjoy the geeky stuff, it hasn’t left much time for my original love: writing.

So you can imagine my excitement when I recently inquired about – and subsequently landed – a part-time blogging gig with one of my favorite sites, ReadWriteWeb. Specifically, I’m writing for a new channel on the site called ReadWriteBiz, which covers Web technology news, product reviews and analysis for small-to-medium sized businesses. In other words, right up my alley.

However infrequently I’ve updated this personal blog, posts here are likely to become even more sporadic. Be sure to head over to ReadWriteBiz to read more routine geekery.


iPhone 4 and the future of mobile video

June 27, 2010

I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to splurge for an iPhone 4 (because AT&T is horrendously bad, and I’m keeping a curious eye on Android), but regardless of whether I get one myself, I can’t help but be excited by the inclusion of iMovie on the iPhone, and what this likely means for the future of mobile video publishing in general.

I was pumped when i first heard about the iMovie video-editing app, but it wasn’t until I saw this how-to article on Mashable that it really hit home how significant this is. From the looks of it, editing video with this application is super-easy, with an interface even more simplified and intuitive than iMovie for the desktop.

iMovie for iPhone screen shot

Now you can shoot, edit and upload video from your phone. Image courtesy of Mashable

Initial estimates put iPhone 4 sales at 1.5 million units in the first day. While the accuracy of those numbers is debatable, it’s true that iPhones tend to sell extraordinarily well, and as a result, the iPhone has a tendency to set the bar in terms of smart phone functionality. Meanwhile, we have Android slowly creeping up on iPhone’s market share, setting the stage for what is sure to be an epic, competitive battle that can only improve each company’s offerings with every blow. Hopefully we’ll see prices drop too.

So what does this have to do with mobile video publishing? According to Gizmodo, 23% of U.S. mobile customers are now carrying smart phones. As that number continues to climb and features like HD video shooting and editing become the norm, it’s not hard to imagine a day in the not-to-distant future when most of us are walking around with HD video production and publishing studios in our pockets. Indeed, like the iPhone, Android already has basic video-editing apps available, and there are bound to be more.

Undoubtedly, this will lead to more garbage on YouTube. But it will also make it easier for people to tell stories, document their lives and communities and in some cases, expose corruption and abuse.

Like today’s citizen journalism, much of it will require editorial intervention and curation for it to be truly useful to society. But as we’ve seen with the Internet, mobile and social media already, providing the masses with the tools to create and distribute content has hugely significant — often disruptive — effects.


Do news publishers even need an iPad app?

June 14, 2010

There’s interesting critique of the current selection of news apps for the Apple iPad over at MondayNote.com.

Without naming publishers or apps by name, the tech blog argues that “most are disappointing” and that in many cases, simply browsing a publication’s Website using Safari on the iPad would suffice. That’s probably correct. After all, the main reason desktop Websites don’t work well on the iPhone and other smartphones is simply the size of the screen. By its very design, the iPad solves that initial problem. How good are news apps on the iPad?

That isn’t to say that publishers should sit back and do nothing with respect to making their content more accessible on Web-enabled tablets and e-readers. As devices like the iPad (and whatever Google and others have in the pipeline) become more common in the wild, anybody who publishes a Website is going to need to take those devices into account during their next redesign. To be sure, there are use cases and features beyond simple reading that would justify the expense of building an app, especially as publishers begin to monetize their content via apps, something that has been famously difficult to do via the Web.

While I share the concerns of Jeff Jarvis and others about the proprietary, “walled garden” nature of Apple’s app ecosystem, I do think there are legitimate reasons for building an app, as part of a multi-channel publishing strategy. It may not prove to be absolutely necessary for all, though.

For those who do go the app route, the aforementioned Monday Note post offers some sensible pointers as to how media apps could be done better: downloadable content (for offline use), more video, and more interactivity, among other things.

How about you: Have you used any news apps that blew the Web-based browsing experience out of the water?


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