RSS Readers: Narrowing Down Your Choices

Datamation columnist Brian Livingston says RSS adoption is growing rapidly and a multitude of RSS readers are vying for your attention. Livingston helps you narrow the field.
If Microsoft starts supporting RSS (Really Simple Syndication) as a native feature of the new Internet Explorer 7.0 this year, RSS feeds will become even more popular than they already are.

Which RSS readers will people use to read all of the constantly updated bulletins? And, more importantly, which one should your company pick?

I reported in this space last week that Microsoft had announced it would release an updated browser with full RSS support before the end of 2005. That means IE will automatically detect blogs and other Web sites that offer content as RSS feeds. One or more icons will then appear on IE's toolbar, making it easy for users to subscribe to regular updates. The competing Firefox browser has had a feature similar to this since November, 2004.

The best reading experience for RSS, however, is not in a browser itself but in an application specially designed for the wide variety of RSS content.

Let's look at your choices.

Dozens Of RSS Readers Beckon To You

Although only a small minority of Internet users have ever subscribed to an RSS feed, the number of blogs out there now is reportedly more than 10 million worldwide.

RSS adoption is growing rapidly as a result. Because RSS is, well, really simple, everybody and his brother seems to have written an RSS reader (also called an aggregator) and is vying for your attention.

Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, links to more than 130 different RSS readers in its list of news aggregators. This includes applications -- a number of which are free -- designed for Windows, Macs, Unix, and cross-platform use.

Very few companies, obviously, are going to install and try out all of those programs to choose the one that works best. So it's necessary to narrow the field, perhaps evaluating only the most popular software. When you start researching this market, however, you find it's tremendously difficult to get accurate and up-to-date figures on how many people are using each RSS reader.

Growing Like Weeds

To get the latest numbers, I turned to Eric Lunt, the cofounder and CTO of FeedBurner.com. His service, which offers both free and paid accounts, currently manages technical stuff for more than 70,000 RSS feeds. This includes everything from a personal blogger, whose feed is followed only by a handful of family members, to the giant BoingBoing tech blog, which claims more than 600,000 RSS subscribers.

Lunt extracted for me a set of figures showing how many RSS readers are pulling updates from FeedBurner's 1,000 largest-circulation feeds, which he says is a good representation. The tables below, compiled on June 29, show the results. (The three product names that are followed by an asterisk [*] are online services, which differ somewhat from client-based applications, as I'll describe later.)

Table 1: Top 20 RSS Readers of FeedBurner-Served Feeds

  • My Yahoo* -- 59.02%;
  • Bloglines* -- 10.42%;
  • Firefox Live Bookmarks -- 4.20%;
  • NetNewsWire -- 3.74%;
  • iTunes -- 3.37%;
  • iPodder -- 2.38%;
  • NewsGator Online* -- 1.82%;
  • Pluck -- 1.59%;
  • FeedDemon -- 1.56%;
  • Reader not identified -- 1.02%;
  • Apple CFNetwork Generic Client -- 0.96%;
  • SharpReader -- 0.86%;
  • Thunderbird -- 0.82%;
  • Safari RSS -- OS X Tiger -- 0.61%;
  • iPodderX -- 0.54%;
  • LiveJournal -- 0.52%;
  • NewsGator Outlook Edition -- 0.51%;
  • RSS Bandit -- 0.50%;
  • RssReader -- 0.34%, and
  • Opera RSS Reader -- 0.33%,

    Holy cow! It looks like My Yahoo, a personalized page where members of Yahoo.com can select RSS feeds, gets more action (59.02%) than all the other Top 20 aggregators combined.

    Not so fast, Lunt says. "We have a few very, very popular feeds at the top of the list -- things that show up by default on a new My Yahoo page, for example. So these results are skewed somewhat by these popular feeds," he adds.

    It's much more interesting to look at the Top 20 list with these 10 default feeds removed. Table 2 shows the leaders of today's RSS aggregator market are a lot closer together than it first appeared.

    Table 2: Top 20 RSS Readers (excluding 10 most popular feeds)

  • Bloglines* -- 19.49%;
  • NetNewsWire -- 10.07%;
  • iTunes -- 9.53%;
  • Firefox Live Bookmarks -- 7.25%;
  • iPodder -- 7.17%;
  • My Yahoo* -- 6.68%;
  • FeedDemon -- 4.23%;
  • NewsGator Online* -- 3.83%;
  • Reader not identified -- 3.07%;
  • Pluck -- 2.07%;
  • SharpReader -- 1.91%;
  • iPodderX -- 1.77%;
  • Thunderbird -- 1.75%;
  • Safari RSS -- OS X Tiger -- 1.75%;
  • LiveJournal -- 1.44%;
  • NewsGator Outlook Edition -- 1.27%;
  • Apple CFNetwork Generic Client -- 1.21%;
  • RSS Bandit -- 0.99%;
  • Opera RSS Reader -- 0.90%, and
  • Sage -- 0.82%.

    The second table shows a market that's still highly fragmented. Seventeen different aggregators have more than 1% of the current user base. (NewsGator purchased FeedDemon in May, giving those two products and NewsGator's Outlook Edition a combined 9.33% reach).

    [Note: Bloglines and NewsGator Online count all subscribers who have ever signed up, whereas My Yahoo counts only "active" subscribers who've logged in within the past 30 days. For more on this, see my July 12, 2005, column.]

    "The market becomes more and more fragmented every time we measure it, which indicates that we're still very much on the innovation upswing," Lunt says.

    That's apparent in the varied nature of the applications on the list.

    Among the client-based aggregators, which must first be installed on a personal computer to work, the range of programs included is extremely wide. On the one hand, you have Firefox Live Bookmarks, which is an RSS feature built into a browser, while on the other you have iTunes and iPodder, which are optimized to download audio "podcasts."

    Furthermore, iTunes 4.9 -- the first version to natively support podcasts -- was released as recently as June 28, only one day before the above figures were compiled. In less than 24 hours, iTunes zoomed from nothing to 9.53% of all RSS downloads shown in Table 2, above. "We have never seen such rapid adoption of a client," Lunt notes with a hint of wonder.

    Unique Advantages

    Even more interesting than client-based aggregators are the Web-based, online RSS readers in the tables. If you read your list of RSS feeds from a desktop computer one day and from a laptop the next, the easiest way to keep your feeds synchronized on the two machines is to read your news online. You sign up for an account, probably for free, and you see the same updated list of your feeds every time you browse to your preferred service.

    That means you'll be choosing from what Lunt calls "the top online aggregators... My Yahoo, Bloglines, and NewsGator Online."

    Next week, I'll examine which service would be the best for you. I'll follow that with an analysis of the best client-based readers. Stay tuned.






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