Marramgrass

A constant flow of information.

Back in September I mentioned that I was giving Google Reader another go in case I ended up with an iPhone in my pocket.

Four and a half months later, it appears to have become my feed reader of choice. Since the first time I tried it out, way back when it became available, Reader has been developed into a much slicker and more usable piece of software, and it seems to have successfully weaned me off my desktop feed reader (on Windows I was a lover of FeedDemon in the days before it was eaten by NewsGator, then I discovered Thunderbird's abilities in the field and brought it with me to the Mac).

Before we go any further, an interlude: <!--more-->

What's all this 'feed' business, anyway?

I once heard it described as 'the future of the web'. I can't remember where or by whom, or I'd point you there.

That may have a touch of hyperbole to it, but feeds are certainly very popular these days. A feed is a delivery of the content of a website (news from the BBC, a blog, a Flickr photostream, a Twitter user's stream, pretty much anything) straight to your reader software (often termed an 'aggregator') that lets you access some or all of that content without visiting the website itself.

Sounds daft, but go with me here.

This means that you can catch up on multiple sites in one window without having to navigate round them all, and you can quickly see if a site has new content or not. Of course, if you then want to visit the site directly, just click the link in your feed reader.

The best way to get the feel for it is to give it a go!

Back to Google Reader, then.

Reader isn't the ultimate user experience by any means. Being a web app, you need to be online to use it, and while the advances in web interactivity through AJAX and other buzzwords are astonishing, it still hasn't got the speed or the polish of a good desktop application. Also, you're stuck with Google's schedule of checking feeds for updates.

That's the bad. Here's the good.

Sit me down at any computer with a decent net connection, I can read my feeds — and the reader remembers what I've read elsewhere already. Where I have my iPhone and a signal, Reader's web interface is very usable indeed. That's great for standing in queues and it still keeps in perfect sync with what I've done on the computer.

My favourite bit, though, is Reader's 'Recommendations' feature. Google's servers compare the feeds you subscribe to with the subscriptions of others who read those same feeds, then offer suggestions of sites you may be interested in based on that comparison. Using that feature, I've discovered several interesting sites I probably wouldn't have found otherwise. Unfortunately it means that my subscription list is growing every week.

By now the list of links in the sidebar of this site is only a small subset of the sites I read regularly. I plan to make it more comprehensive as I work on the redesign, but it's not a priority right now. It's also possible to publish an OPML which can be used to automatically subscribe another aggregator to my list of subscriptions — surprisingly fun for nosying at what other folks read!

Of course, by now I subscribe to that many feeds (and I'm still down there in the double-figures) that I'm pretty much guaranteed that whatever time I flick to Reader, day or night, there's something new there to read. It's a whole new area where discipline is needed, lest I get distracted and carried away by the constant flow of information.

Oh dear.