News Explorer: The Modern RSS Reader Apple Won’t Build

 If you know what this bizarre graphic means, you will like this blog post.

If you know what this bizarre graphic means, you will like this blog post.

Am I getting old? I used to like taking risks with my technology choices, trying out the new apps and services — even whole new ecosystems — trying to constantly delight myself by mastering fresh new interfaces and gaining new skills. But that was then.

These days, if you ask me, complexity has outstripped even the most eager private citizen’s ability to adjust technologically, and it’s wreaking havoc. Tech companies are spying on everyone on behalf of oligarchs and gangsters, entire cities are getting pwned, and the little HAL 9000s everyone’s voluntarily putting in their kitchens are literally laughing at them. At the beginning, I thought I was shrewd enough to protect myself, but I was disabused of that notion in 2012 when I found out one of my favorite new apps was stealing my friends’ info from my address book. It’s been six crazy years in technology since then.

Call me old and conservative — or call me aware that consumer tech is inherently dangerous — but I’ve since joined a movement of perfectly tech-savvy people who nevertheless think the safest, easiest, most survivable approach at this point is simply to hide out in Fort Apple.

I’ve been relentlessly cutting back to first-party apps and iCloud-backed services wherever I can. Even in cases where I can’t escape third-party services — email and calendars being the most notable examples, since G Suite is really the only sensible option for having them on your own domain — I’m using Apple’s client apps for them. Don’t get me wrong, I still use plenty of third-party utility apps to get additional functionality for the stuff I do all day, but they either have to allow the use of the file browser, so I can keep stuff in iCloud Drive, or they have to just sync with iCloud themselves. The one major exception is for the OmniGroup, whose software and services I trust even more than Apple’s.

One other area has required some exceptions, because it’s the one in which I’m the most picky: reading. I was all in on iBooks for years, but I finally got tired enough of reading books on my bright, shiny distraction machines that I got a Kindle Paperwhite. I’m still going to use iBooks as my long-term storage for books and long documents — while holding out the dim hope that Apple will make a good reader someday — but now Amazon gets to own what I’m reading for a while.

For hard news, I have completely extricated myself from third parties and pernicious social media trackers and am completely sold on Apple News. I even have two subscriptions in there, to the Washington Post and National Geographic. Apple News gives me the most relevant news feed I’ve ever had. It’s not even close.

I’ve long used Safari for all my browsing except work stuff (where I use Chrome as my all-G Suite work island), and I ride Reader mode all day. I would happily use Reading List for reading later, too, but sadly it doesn’t sync reading position yet. This is so annoying to me. They don’t even have to build real syncing; they could just add a query string to every URL saved in Reading List like “?read=74”, where the number is the percentage of the page you’ve scrolled down, and just sync that tiny little string and tell Safari to jump down to that percentage when it loads that URL. But alas, they haven’t gotten around to it, so I’m still doing my dedicated article reading in Instapaper, now living happily acquired in Pinterest’s cozy bosom. I still love Instapaper, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I’m one little feature away from being able to go all-Apple on the thing I do that generates the most identifiable data about me — browsing to websites and reading their articles — and that is my quest these days.

The other sticking point has been RSS reading. For the longest time, the service I (and everyone) relied on for this was provided by Google (R.I.P.). Apple also used to provide onboard RSS reading, both in Safari and Mail — either of which I would love to still use — but they killed those. They even let people subscribe to blogs via RSS in Apple News at first — though I don’t know what kind of monster would want their RSS reader algorithmically filtered — but they killed that, too. Yes, RSS has been pronounced dead regularly since 2009, but people are still writing RSS-is-not-dead articles in 2018! As hard as the big corporate ecosystems I live in have tried to get me to stop reading blogs by RSS, life keeps finding a way.

The funny thing was, Google killing Google Reader inspired a bunch of new upstart RSS services, and as far as I can tell, all of them are great. I signed up for Feedbin on day one of the renaissance, and I was super happy with it. Reeder, my client application of choice, was quick to adopt it. It was a little weird to pay a subscription fee to read web articles published over a long-established, totally open standard, but Feedbin was fast and packed with handy features, so I went with it, and Reeder syncing with Feedbin was how I read blogs for over five years.

But perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve slipped into the past tense. Yes, after half a decade of my favorite online activity — reading blogs — going absolutely perfectly, I started to hear the call to adventure once again — except the call was coming from inside the house, as it were. RSS was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb in the Cambridge Analytica era as an activity of mine that would be majorly, ideologically interesting to interested parties, and I was relying on an upstart third party for it. Now, I certainly trust Feedbin’s intentions, but surely they would be no match for a dedicated attacker. But that’s not even really the issue — I just don’t want the complexity of all these add-on services. It’s not possible to make computer stuff simple anymore, but it seems like a good rule of thumb that simpler is always better. There I was, reading about the dastardly political and economic exploitation of technology users unable to defend themselves against complexity, right inside my third-party RSS reader. I started to get antsy.

Then, one day, browsing the App Store for something unrelated, I stumbled upon News Explorer.

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Now, any time I see a new and up-to-date RSS reader, I’m already impressed. But News Explorer’s promo materials dazzled me. It’s always a good sign to me when a developer is building against every single one of Apple’s platforms; it means they’re seeing the big picture. I’m not about to read RSS on my watch, and I don’t even have an Apple TV new enough to install apps on — not that I would read on a TV anyway… would I? — but if I have to use a third-party app for something, my standard is basically: this developer understands Apple’s platforms as well as or better than Apple itself. If you’ve built your app for everything, I assume you’ve seen all the nooks and crannies and skeletons in the closets.

But it was the second thing I noticed that really got my attention. News Explorer isn’t just built on Apple’s hardware platforms — it’s built for iCloud.

For a long time, iCloud had a deserved reputation as being way too opaque, janky and unstable for even Apple’s apps to use, much less third parties whose bug reports could be ignored. But those days are way gone, and I’ve been using it ever since it was good enough. I keep all my files in iCloud Drive, I am a voracious user of Notes, I use iBooks (even if only for storage now), I use iCloud Photo Library, iCloud syncs all my Safari bookmarks and tabs and stuff that isn’t Reading List (which, again, I would love to use), and I use tons of apps that store files or sync with iCloud, and I think this is the most stable syncing period I’ve had since the multi-device era began. Does Podcasts syncing count? I’m also using that now. If I could use iCloud to sync my mail and calendars with my custom domain, I would dump Google in a nanosecond. (The one big thing I don’t let iCloud touch is my music library, but you know all about that).

Of course, my experience with iCloud means there are just… things I know about it. I know it syncs noticeably slowly. I know it only shows opaque spinners while syncing, and there’s no way to see how long it’s going to take, let alone to debug it. But I’ve decided these are perfectly acceptable prices to pay for deep integration on all my devices, not to mention for Apple’s privacy and security standards, which are unquestionably the highest available to consumers.

And I’ve seen what happens when iCloud goes wrong, which it does not do often. Back in the earliest days, stuff would sometimes disappear, but I haven’t had that happen in ages. Now, when iCloud has a conflict (which usually happens to me in Files or Notes, the two most complex implementations of iCloud in different ways), it does exactly what it should do: It creates two versions and lets you pick which one it should have synced. Bottom line: I am a happy iCloud customer.

So when I saw that News Explorer was just an old-school local RSS reader, but it synced the states of your feeds and articles between devices using iCloud, I was instantly compelled. I can’t imagine using RSS in this day and age without sync, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen an RSS reader that syncs local data, rather than doing the RSS stuff on the server, where T3h H4x0rz can get it. News Explorer gave me exactly what I wanted: RSS the way Apple would do it now, the way all its other apps work. In fact, what is a podcast app if not an RSS reader that only shows feed items with audio files in them? Apple’s Podcasts app basically is this app, and if Apple would make a text version of it, that would be my RSS reader. But they don’t, and that’s why Betamagic does.

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Now, I may have been a little over-exuberant when I found out about News Explorer. I instantly bought the iOS and Mac versions, sure, but I also went straight to Feedbin, exported my subscriptions, and canceled my account. Like any good, trustworthy web service should, Feedbin instantly annihilated all my data. Welp. I was all in. I could always take this OPML file and go back to Feedbin if I had to. But News Explorer is gonna be amazing, so I won’t have to!

Uh, well, it turned out the transition wasn’t quite that smooth. Importing my feeds went just fine, but News Explorer is one of those apps with a LOT of settings to fiddle with, and the defaults were not quite right for me, so it took a lot of tinkering to get it behaving the way I wanted it to. I couldn’t do it all at once, either; I was used to certain little things just being design decisions that were made for me instead of one of nine little switches I could control, so some behaviors just bugged me for a couple days until I realized I could change them.

This fiddling period coincided with getting used to the transition from Feedbin — one of the snappiest, smoothest purpose-built web services I have ever used — to iCloud, which behaved exactly the way I should have expected it to: It was slower. It showed out-of-date data on screen for an almost-uncomfortably long time until the sync was finished. It rarely — but not never — created a double version of an article I had just accidentally opened and quickly left or whatever. I started to wonder whether I’d made a mistake.

After three days, I opened up Safari, went to the Feedbin website, and began to sign up again. However, I had encoded in my mind the idea that the service cost $20/year — maybe because it did at launch, when I signed up, and I was grandfathered in? — and now it said it was $50. Now, I am not a cheap-o when it comes to good software — ask the OmniGroup, except they won’t tell you because they would never divulge customer data. But given everything you’ve already read about the circumstances, this higher price tag gave me pause. I tried a pathetic email to the Feedbin developer asking if he could still reinstate my old account, but he was like, “Nope,” as well he should have been. So, there I was. But this was the perfect situation to encourage me to stick with News Explorer and see if I could get used to it.

Over the next few days, I figured some things out. I found the visual themes I liked, and I loved the way they matched the system’s conventions but distinguished themselves with subtle color choices. I figured out that I wanted some settings to “Do nothing” on some devices and “Open next” on others. I figured out that things went more smoothly between the Mac, iPhone and iPad on which I was running News Explorer if I set the background refresh time to the longest convenient interval, based on how much I use the device for RSS, rather than them just wailing on iCloud constantly. That’s a very personal setting, if you think about it.

I also figured out that, if News Explorer was doing something a little bit weird, I didn’t need to freak out. I could just wait a few seconds, and it would sort itself out. This might sound like an unacceptable compromise to you, or like Stockholm syndrome, but I have realized it doesn’t actually impede my RSS reading at all. I just soldier on with confidence, and News Explorer works things out with iCloud just fine. It’s worth it.

Then came the big test. I was going offline for five days for Passover in the Desert, and I knew to expect to come back on the grid with as many as 500 unread RSS items. If News Explorer choked on that, it would seal the deal. Guess what: It took it like a champ, and I think I know why. There was, of course, no activity — and therefore no syncing — happening while I was offline. When I turned on my phone and launched News Explorer, it would have been obvious to the app that its data was way out of date, and it dutifully updated all the feeds. But because of the iCloud sync model, there was only one computer doing the work! The phone version of News Explorer could feel free to handle everything itself. It did, syncing its local data all the way, and when I got back to my other devices, they didn’t bat an eye.

That whole experience changed the mood, and after that, I started discovering features of News Explorer that are affirmatively better than my past experiences with RSS.

My favorite feature of all is News Explorer’s own Reader mode, the name of which confused me at first until I realized it was probably meant to accord with the Safari feature of the same name. While RSS feeds that transmit the full article show up just fine, lots of websites who publish RSS feeds are run by barbarians who think it’s okay to truncate their RSS feed items to make you click through and read the articles on their hideous websites. It’s only the ones with hideous websites that make you do this, of course, because hideous websites are the result of designing your website to extract money rather than serve visitors. Nevertheless, I still read articles from a good number of such websites. In the past, I would run those feeds through another website called FeedEx, which scrapes the full contents of truncated RSS feeds and publishes them in its own RSS feed, to which you can subscribe instead of the actual one. It works remarkably well, but I always worried about FeedEx going away and breaking all these feeds of mine. News Explorer simply has a button with the same icon as Safari’s Reader mode that crawls and displays the full article instead of the truncated one on demand. It’s awesome.

The other big upgrade for me is the “Add to News Explorer” share extension, which is built in on both iOS and Mac. This gives you a button in the share menu in Safari to find and subscribe to any feed on any website. Before, I was using Feed Hawk, a different third party app, to do this on iOS, and I was using Feedbin’s browser bookmarklet on the Mac. Again: complexity. This feels much neater.

I encountered exactly one issue with my actual list of feeds, which might be 15 years old at this point. It was with 3 Quarks Daily, a blog I’ve been subscribed to for that entire time. Feedbin was able to handle whatever the heck they’re doing with their RSS feed, but News Explorer just couldn’t find any items in the feed. As I began to investigate, I discovered that 3QD’s feeds come from all kinds of weird places, not even necessarily on their own domain, and there’s more than one of them. I figured this was some ancient business practice that has enabled this website to survive for this long without seemingly ever being redesigned, and that these problems are their own fault, not News Explorer’s. It took me a while to figure out a solution, but then it hit me: use FeedEx! So my one remaining FeedEx feed is 3QD, and it’s working fine.

So I’m in! I’m running my daily reading rituals on News Explorer right now, and the dream of RSS sync without a service has come true. I’d love to see it more widely adopted, so it gets plenty of maintenance and attention on into the future, so hop on it! For Mac users, there’s a seven-day free trial of the non-App Store Mac version, so you can kick the tires first if you’d like, but at $9.99 on the Mac App Store and $4.99 on the iOS App Store, it’s not a very risky decision to just jump in and see how it goes. Maybe don’t nuke your existing solution immediately like I did. Get used to it first. But I think you will.


Like this post? You’ll probably enjoy listening to Drew Coffman and me talk about tech life on Internet Friends, a ★★★★★ podcast available wherever podcasts are available.