inessential by Brent Simmons

NetNewsWire 5.0.1 Released

NetNewsWire for Mac icon: globe with a satellite in the foreground.

NetNewsWire 5.0.1 is almost entirely a bug-fix release — see the release notes for the full scoop.

It includes one sort-of new feature: there’s now a checkbox in Preferences for turning off the unread count in the Dock. (It was a hidden pref — now it’s visible.)

Status

Here’s what else we’re working on:

  • iOS/iPadOS app
  • NetNewsWire 5.0.2 for Mac — which will mainly be about performance (yes, we can make it even faster)
  • NetNewsWire 5.1 for Mac — tentative feature list includes content extraction and at least one more syncing option (but we might change our minds on these: anything can happen between now and then)

We might also distribute NetNewsWire 5.0.2 for Mac on the Mac App Store. No guarantees yet, of course, but work is happening in that direction. This goes to our goal of getting as many people as possible using RSS readers.

Had to get a new key fob at work today — my old one wore out. Just a couple weeks shy of my fifth anniversary at Omni! Time flies.

I figure I’m just over eight years from retiring, so I’m not even halfway done here. :)

On Syncing NetNewsWire Using iCloud

People have been asking me about supporting iCloud as a sync method for NetNewsWire.

It would be really cool because:

  • There’s no sign-in
  • It’s free — no need to spend money on another service
  • It would help broaden the pool of people using RSS, since there would be no additional expense or service they’d need — they could just get going

It’s a great idea — no question. Given that my goal is to get as many people as possible using RSS, this makes total sense.

Why we didn’t ship with this feature

For the first release — I still think of it as a 1.0, because it really is — our best bet was to appeal to people already using an existing RSS service. We know that those people like and use RSS, and they’re the people most likely to check out a new RSS app.

(We could have delayed and shipped with support for more existing services, but we figured one was enough to get started with, and we could add other services later. And we are.)

In other words, we tried to make an app that the existing market would like. And that’s the right call when you’re starting out.

Also: iCloud sync makes the most sense when you have both a Mac and an iOS app, and we don’t — the iOS app is still in progress. We totally expect people to use NetNewsWire on the Mac and Unread or Reeder on their iPhone and iPad — and iCloud sync won’t work across apps. This scenario requires using services such as Feedbin.

Why I have no idea when this feature might appear

For any existing RSS service, we can be confident that our effort to support it in NetNewsWire would be successful. This is well-trodden ground: we make some web API calls, integrate with our database, and done. It’s not nothing, but conceptually it’s simple and there’s no cause to worry about technical issues.

But iCloud syncing will mean writing exploratory code and only then finding out if it’s going to work.

Syncing the feeds list should be relatively easy — the real issue is with syncing read/unread/starred states of articles. That means a lot of small records.

Is CloudKit up to this? What are the limits? How fast is it? How reliable?

We just don’t know.

Yes, it’s encouraging that News Explorer has this feature — but that doesn’t tell us much about the limits, reliability, and performance.

Working on this is a risk.

So — as you can imagine — we’re still more keen on supporting existing RSS services, because we know there are plenty of people who for-sure like RSS, and who might like NetNewsWire, but who won’t switch their syncing system just to use NetNewsWire.

That said: I do think we’ll get around to trying this, and I’ll be super-pleased if it works, because it really is a great idea — but we have a bunch of other work to do first. (Including the iOS app!)

Markos Charatzas writes about his excitement in joining the Apple developer world in 2009 to his eventual disillusionment today.

On the Many NetNewsWire Feature Requests to Show Full Web Pages

A number of people have asked that NetNewsWire show the full web page — right there, in the app — after clicking a link.

The idea is pretty good! It solves two big problems:

  • You get full content, which is great when a feed contains only summaries or truncated articles
  • You don’t have to switch to another app: you can stay right where you are

You’d think it’s a no-brainer, and we should just go ahead. But there are other considerations.

One big one is that your ad blockers and privacy extensions won’t run. They work in Safari, but they do not extend to other apps that use WebKit. This means that viewing a web page in NetNewsWire would be less secure and more annoying than viewing the same page in Safari (or whatever your browser is).

This points to one of my design principles: the app should have boundaries. Some features belong in the app, and some features are best left to apps that do that feature way better than NetNewsWire could. One of those things is showing web pages — that’s really a web browser feature.

Having boundaries means we can concentrate on doing a great job at the things that do belong in the app.

(Before you mention SFSafariViewController, recall that it’s iOS-only.)

What about the glory days?

“But Brent! In NetNewsWire 2.0 you added a tabbed browser to NetNewsWire, and it was awesome and a hugely popular feature!”

It was! But times have changed. Many websites are hostile these days. In 2005, this feature was fine — but these days it’s totally not.

A winged messenger arrives with a solution

There is a solution to the problem of showing full content and not leaving the app, and it’s a feature that really does belong in an RSS reader: using content extraction to grab the article from the original page.

If you’ve ever used Safari’s Reader view, then you know what I’m talking about. The idea is that NetNewsWire would do something very much like the Reader view (but inline, in the article pane), that grabs the content and formats it nicely, without all the extra junk that is not the article you want to read.

There are a number of open source options for this. We’re looking at using Feedbin’s content extraction service (which wouldn’t require you to have a Feedbin account).

The generous folks at Feedbin are running a copy of the open-source Mercury Parser, and they’ve offered to open this service up to RSS readers like NetNewsWire. (Reeder uses it already, for instance.)

When?

Right now we’re working on NetNewsWire 5.0.1, which is (almost entirely) a bug-fix release. I don’t know what’s going to be in 5.1 yet — we’re still digesting all the feedback, looking at our original roadmap, and thinking about things.

We’re also working on NetNewsWire for iOS! We’re busy.

But this is definitely the kind of feature that should come sooner rather than later.

On My Funny Ideas About What Beta Means

John Gruber has mentioned, on The Talk Show, that I’ve got some weird ideas about what beta means.

Here are my definitions:

development (d): everything is in progress and the app might be completely unusable.

alpha (a): the app is feature-complete and has no known bugs — but, importantly, it’s had very little testing.

beta (b): the app is feature-complete, has no known bugs, and has been tested — but further testing is still warranted. Every beta is a release candidate.

These are defined in a NetNewsWire Technote. It’s important to have definitions that everybody working on or testing the app understands.

But why these rather strict definitions?

It’s part of our commitment to quality. What matters is the end result — the shipping app — and these definitions make sure we don’t get to beta, or even alpha, with the app up on the table with wires sticking out and pieces missing.

This gives us a big space between development and shipping, and that space is all about making sure the bugs are all fixed.

This is a matter of ethics and pride in our work. Absolutely.

But it’s also pragmatic. This is an open source app, written by volunteers in their spare time, and having this rhythm baked-in to the process helps make sure we can uphold our standards even without full-time developers, managers, and testers.

* * *

And… it bugs me how little real attention our industry pays to quality these days. In some cases the consequences are disastrous; in other cases they’re merely expensive. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If it seems like I’m going too far with my definitions, well, I’m trying to bend the stick here.

I love this NetNewsWire write-up on WP Tavern.

NetNewsWire 5 Feature Requests

NetNewsWire 5.0 is a 1.0 app in disguise.

And so, as expected, we’ve had a ton of feature requests. Most people tend to request one or two features — and there’s a huge variety in these. People want different things.

Nevertheless, there are a few themes we can pick out from what people are asking for:

  • More syncing options, especially Feedly support
  • iOS app
  • Some way to deal with partial-content feeds
  • Customization of the article pane (fonts, colors, etc.)
  • Traditional view (timeline on top with single lines, article below)
  • More sharing options (Instapaper, Pinboard, etc.)
  • Customizable keyboard shortcuts
  • State restoration
  • Localizations
  • Hiding read items in the timeline (or dimming them)
  • Hiding feeds (in the sidebar) that have no unread articles
  • User-created smart feeds

The less-common, more singular requests are for things like specific sorting options — there are lots of different small options that people would like.

People have also asked for things that might surprise you (they surprised me) — for instance, we’ve had a request for monochrome icons for the toolbar. Another request for a Dark Mode that’s different from Apple’s Dark Mode. Etc.

How We Choose What To Do Next

The first principle is that we can’t lose what we love about the app. We do our damnedest to ship with no bugs, and the app needs to be fast and, most importantly, it needs to feel lighter-than-air.

Whenever you add things — even if the app remains just as fast, even if there are no bugs — you still run the risk of losing that feeling of lightness. One of the quickest ways to lose that feeling is to add a whole bunch of preferences, View menu options, toolbar commands, and other chrome. So we’re going to be very slow to add things like that.

NetNewsWire needs to not become fiddly. (Earlier versions of NetNewsWire got way too fiddly.)

There are other questions we ask about a feature before we do it.

  • Will it substantially benefit current users?
  • Will it bring a number of new users to the app?
  • Does the feature depend on something else being done first?
  • How much work will it take?
  • Does it require resources (such as new icons) that our programmers can’t provide?
  • Does the feature really belong in an RSS reader at all?

And, because this is an open source app, there’s another dimension: people. Is someone available? Has someone just shown up who’s eager to work on a specific feature? Those things have an impact on scheduling, too.

The good news is that most of the common feature requests are obvious things to do.

Some examples — not nearly everything, just a few thoughts:

The iOS app is in progress. Maurice Parker has been writing it, and it’s coming along very well. Still plenty more to do, and we won’t ship before iOS 13 ships, but it’s happening.

Adding syncing options is a definite good thing for the app. Doing the first one (Feedbin) was the big effort, because it required building the infrastructure that makes syncing possible. Once that was done, adding additional services is not super-difficult. (Not easy, no. Nothing’s trivial. But at least the infrastructure and patterns are in place.)

We’d like to support all the various services, or at least a majority of them. And we have people working on adding services.

Customization of the article pane will most likely work the way it did in older versions of NetNewsWire: we had theme files which included templates and CSS. The app shipped with a few, and you could make your own and use themes other people made.

This feature shipped with NetNewsWire 2.0, and people really loved it. It was fun!

More sharing options is an obvious good idea. Of course you should be able to send to Instapaper, Pocket, Pinboard, and so on. We shipped with custom support for MarsEdit and the Micro.blog app — mainly because I use those apps. But an RSS reader ought to support as many sharing workflows as possible. That’s one of the core points of the app.

* * *

Anyway — the above doesn’t cover everything. Don’t take any of the above as gospel about what we’re doing or when, or what we’re not doing. We haven’t planned 5.1 yet! It’s too soon.

There are also features that we want to do that people haven’t asked for, but that we think are cool. 🎸

The take-away from this article should be: we’re being very careful about designing and implementing new features, because we have to make sure NetNewsWire doesn’t lose what makes it special.

But we are doing new features, because there are so many things that can make the app even better — we can make it better for current users and we can bring in new users.

Follow-Through

Decades ago, when I was working for Dave Winer at UserLand, I learned about the concept of follow-through after a major release.

If you’re an app maker, it might seem like your goal is to get to release day. Get the app done, make it available, publish an announcement, and then get back to coding. Let the world do what it’s going to do.

One bang, and then back to work, in other words.

But that’s not going to maximize your chances for a good release. You need to follow through — you need to keep going.

Some of the things you might do, in no particular order:

  • Publish tips on using your app — one a day or so
  • Update your website with feedback, testimonials, and good reviews
  • Be available and communicative about your app
  • Go on some podcasts
  • Write about how release day went
  • Write about plans for the x.0.1 version
  • Field bug reports and feature requests gratefully
  • Thank reviewers who’ve done a good job
  • Make it as easy as possible for reporters and reviewers to get access to your app and to you
  • Work to build a community of customers, on Slack or similar

I’m sure you can think of more things to do — the above isn’t everything, and every app is different.

But the key is that you don’t just do the release and then stop. Instead, show that you‘re responsive, show that your app has momentum, show that you care enough to keep showing up.

For me, at least, this is the fun part. I realize that’s not true for everybody — but you should do it anyway. 🎩

Daniel Figures Out One of the Two Crashing Bugs

We have a few reports of a crash where the add-feed-sheet window doesn’t load. There’s a line of code with window! — because of course we expect the window to have been loaded — and it crashes right there.

This crash made zero sense to me, but Daniel Jalkut figured out the most likely cause and was able to reproduce it: it’s because the person has moved the app (from one folder to another) after launching it, while it’s running, and the nib-loading machinery can’t find the nib, because it’s moved along with the app.

Tip: if you’re going to move an app, quit it first, then move it, and then re-launch it!

At any rate: our fix for this will be to load that sheet on startup, and then recycle it on each use. This fix will go into NetNewsWire 5.0.1.

This just fixes the bug with this one nib, though. A more systematic fix — maybe just a warning to the user suggesting they quit and re-launch — would be a good idea.

File under “bugs iOS developers never have to worry about.” 🐇

PS We have a 5.0.1 beta milestone now.

How Release Day Went

Yesterday was a great day! A few things to note, in no particular order:

NetNewsWire got some press coverage, including a well-done review in MacStories.

We got a lot of feature requests, but no bug reports.

Except that we did get a single-digit number of crash logs. On investigation, I found two distinct backtraces — we’ll need to fix those. The thing is, there’s no freakin’ way the app should crash in those spots. Except that, obviously, it can. Rarely, but it happens.

The servers started timing-out at one point during the day. I contacted DreamHost support and they fixed things (and told me that the fixes they applied should prevent this in the future).

There were a number of nice blog posts and tweets about NetNewsWire, which was awesome. After working so hard for so long, it’s great when people appreciate the app. We don’t get paid in money, after all. 🐣

I have no idea how many downloads of the app there were. GitHub is hosting the download, via its releases feature, and I don’t see a way to find out how many times it’s been downloaded. Which is totally fine with me.

* * *

I should say something more about the no-bug-reports. There’s no special magic or talent or anything to this — there’s just the willingness to say that we’re not going to ship until we’ve got the bugs out, and then sticking to that.

This is a matter of pride and ethics, for sure, but there’s another dimension: since the app is open source, it’s written by volunteers (including me), and we have no dedicated support team. Any time we spend fielding bug reports is time taken away from working on the next feature.

Making apps — even, or especially, free apps — is an exercise in economics. With free apps, the economics are even more constrained, because nobody is going to hire even a part-time support person. So we do everything we can do keep costs down — especially time costs.

Plus — buggy apps can be demoralizing to the people who work on them. Part of my job is to make sure people are proud and happy to work on the app. And that means making sure everyone knows we’re super-serious about doing our best to never ship bugs.

NetNewsWire 5.0 Now Available

NetNewsWire for Mac icon: globe with a satellite in the foreground.

NetNewsWire 5.0 is shipping!

In case you haven’t been following along until just now: NetNewsWire is an open source RSS reader for Mac. It’s free! You can just download it and use it. No strings.

It’s designed to be stable, fast, and free of bugs. It doesn’t have a lot of features yet, and that’s because we prioritized quality over features. We will be adding more features, of course, but not quickly. We’re also working on an iOS app.

It syncs using Feedbin. We’ll support more systems in the future (as many as possible).

I hope you like it!

Some links…

Thanks to so many people

I want to especially thank Sheila Simmons and my family and friends.

This release took five years to make, and for four of those years it wasn’t even called NetNewsWire. It was just a year ago that I got the name NetNewsWire back from Black Pixel — and I thank them again for their wonderful generosity.

I also want to thank Brad Ellis for making the beautiful app icon and toolbar icons. Thanks to our major code contributors: Maurice Parker, Olof Hellman, and Daniel Jalkut. Thanks to Ryan Dotson for writing the Help book. Thanks to Joe Heck for looking after infrastructure issues (especially continuous integration).

Thanks to my co-workers and friends at The Omni Group (which is a wonderful place to work). Thanks to the ever-patient and ever-awesome NetNewsWire beta testers on the Slack group and elsewhere.

And thanks to everyone who’s ever used the app in its 17-years-and-counting run. Because of you, NetNewsWire has been, and remains, the thrill of my career.

End of the Line for NetNewsWire 3.3.2

This is a little bit of bad news. It’s not my intention, and it’s not what I want to happen — but NetNewsWire 3.3.2 apparently does not launch in the next version of macOS (10.15, Catalina).

It links to the PubSub framework, which is not included with the next macOS.

NetNewsWire 3.3.2 was the last release of the full version that I worked on, before selling NetNewsWire to Black Pixel, and I’ve heard from lots of people that they’ve been using it ever since. They never switched.

I would rather it continued working forever, but that’s not to be. Not my choice. Sorry about that!

The NetNewsWire blog has the details on NetNewsWire 5.0b5 — which should be the last beta.

Still planning to do the 5.0 final release Monday morning, which really means doing the release on Sunday and pushing an announcement to this blog Monday morning. :)

The last things on my to-do list are actually writing that announcement and doing screenshots for the NetNewsWire web page. Easy. 🐯

Immunization

Before every major release I like to try and think of everything mean that people might say about the app. It’s fun!

So we just went through this exercise on the NetNewsWire Slack group. Here’s a taste:

  • This took five years? I could write an RSS parser in a weekend.
  • Can’t get my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Whatever.
  • Doesn’t work with my Usenet host.
  • The information density of the timeline is… lacking. What the hell.
  • Not truly open source since it’s on a Mac.
  • Not truly open source since it’s not GPL.
  • No vim keys. Why bother.
  • Regular people will never use an RSS reader. What’s the point?
  • Brent’s last good idea was in 2002. Consider this a textbook case of coasting.
  • Great app. Too bad RSS died with Google Reader.
  • It totally didn’t pick up my subscriptions from the earlier version. How is this an upgrade?
  • When does a 5.0 have fewer features than a 3.0? When it’s NetNewsWire.
  • The echo chamber will love this app. They always do.
  • Free app. Continues the race to the bottom. Pour one out for Silvio Rizzi.
  • No way to send to Instapaper. Fuck it.
  • Brent Simmons can’t stop pursuing a technology that even Google famously admitted was not worth bothering with.
  • If this app took five years, imagine how long it will take before it will actually sync with Feedly.
  • Sure it’s free, but I bet the Feedbin people paid them off, because the only way to sync is to pay money to Feedbin.
  • No iCloud sync? Jerks.
  • No iOS app. The revolution happened on mobile, Brant. What the actual fuck.
  • Shoulda been Catalyst. Dinosaurs wrote this app.
  • Not on the Mac App Store? I guess they don’t want users.
  • I would totally use this if it had just this one [feature x], which I can’t believe they shipped without. (Multiply this comment by 100, with a different feature x each time.)
  • Area Man Can’t Let RSS Go

Some feedback will be factually inaccurate, but we like to imagine that too:

  • I remember using NetNewsWire on OS 9, and it hasn’t really improved since then. They should make it a Cocoa app.
  • Doesn’t work with web comics. POS
  • Doesn’t support 10.5.
  • It should be free.
  • You’d think they would have updated the design — but it looks exactly like NetNewsWire of old.
  • Why the hell would they build on that aging code base from Black Pixel? I heard it doesn’t even use ARC.
  • No way to sync? What’s their actual problem?

See? The actual feedback will be nicer than the stuff we thought up. This provides a bit of immunization. :)

But, also, there will be negative feedback we didn’t imagine. That’s the gold!

* * *

Bonus from Daniel Jalkut, but not actually a criticism:

Can’t innovate, my RSS.

I think we’re still on track for releasing NetNewsWire 5.0 Monday, August 26. There will be one more beta before then.

I’ll be available for podcasts, interviews-via-email, etc. If you’d like to set something up, email me or DM me on Twitter.

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