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By Dan Moren

On RSS readers and the much exaggerated “death” of RSS

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber responds to my post on the new NetNewsWire:

RSS readers exploded in popularity a decade ago, and Dan is right that their use has died down dramatically. But I think “RSS is dead” is the new “email is dead”. And I know from my server stats that an awful lot of people still read Daring Fireball in an RSS reader — many of them using NetNewsWire. For me, as a news junkie, an RSS reader is something to get worked up about.

To clarify: I don’t think RSS is dead either, and didn’t mean to suggest as much. Certainly RSS is not dead as a technology: the popularity of podcasts, as Brent Simmons points out in another response to my piece, ensures that, as well as the fact that it’s the foundation of news-reading apps like the forthcoming Apple News. RSS is as much a backbone technology as HTML is. I use RSS readers on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone every day—but then again, my job also involves keeping close tabs on the news.

However, while RSS may not be dead, I don’t think anybody would say that RSS readers are a growth industry, and that’s where the challenges for NetNewsWire come in. As John himself writes in his earlier post about NetNewsWire:

Second, Black Pixel has simplified so much, they’ve removed a lot of what made NetNewsWire NetNewsWire. Let Apple News and Flipboard be the simple news readers — I think the opportunity in today’s world for a non-free Mac RSS reader is at the high-end.

For people who read the news because they’re news junkies, or because their jobs involve following the news, RSS readers may well truly never die. But I would also argue that most of those people already have their apps, services, and workflows well established, and are unlikely to switch unless a new solution truly brings something they can’t get anywhere else—as John says in his NetNewsWire post, those “esoteric features” that keep apps like BBEdit and those from Omni going strong. (Furthermore, the attention being lavished on those newfangled news reading apps may end up peeling off users of traditional RSS readers.)

RSS readers are kind of a “bare metal” experience, for people who like just such a thing: unlike Flipboard or Apple News, there’s little monkeying with the feeds or the layout. (I think of it a little like writing your HTML in a text editor instead of a WYSIWYG design app.) It’s a niche category—as Brent suggests, “a type of productivity software that some people like and some people don’t”—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with niche categories: those are usually where I find my favorite apps.

But it’s definitely a challenge to come into an established niche category without some significant differentiators. And while the new NetNewsWire looks like a great app, there’s nothing there yet to entice me to switch from my current solution. I look forward to a subsequent version that makes a more persuasive argument.

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]