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Picking the Best Online RSS Reader

Determining the best RSS reader really depends on your content needs, explains our Executive Tech columnist.
Getting good numbers on the most popular online readers of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) isn't easy, as I said in my column last week.

I published figures in that column on the top 20 RSS readers, both online and client-based. The figures were provided by FeedBurner, a free service that handles more than 70,000 RSS feeds. Client-based RSS users are easily counted (each personal computer is counted once per feed.) Web-based readers, by contrast, self-report a subscriber count for each feed as part of HTML's so-called User-Agent string.

My column showed that My Yahoo tops every other RSS reader, claiming 59% of all RSS subscriptions. Bloglines come in at No. 2 with 10.4%. Since some RSS feeds are turned on by default for many new My Yahoo users, I also published a Top 20 list that excluded the 10 most popular feeds. In this second list, Bloglines came in first with 19.5% of subscriptions, while My Yahoo dropped to sixth place with 6.7%.

In separate interviews this week, spokesmen for My Yahoo and Bloglines differed over how their online services count subscribers.

Scott Gatz, senior director of personalization products for Yahoo.com, says My Yahoo counts (and reports to FeedBurner) only those subscribers who've actually logged into their online accounts within the last 30 days. "I understand that Bloglines counts the total number of people who've ever subscribed," he says.

Mark Fletcher, the founder of Bloglines, confirms that his service reports every subscriber, even those who haven't checked in for months. Asked what percentage of Bloglines accounts have logged in lately, Fletcher demurred: "I'm not exactly sure what we can release." He cited a recent acquisition of Bloglines by Ask Jeeves as one reason exact figures can't be given out. "As far as I know, My Yahoo is the only one that monitors activity," he states.

Greg Reinacker, CTO of NewsGator Technologies, says that his company's Web-based RSS reader, NewsGator Online, reports "everyone who hasn't canceled." Both Bloglines' and NewsGator Online's counts, therefore, would be lower if only those users who've logged on in the past 30 days were reported.

If only half of Bloglines' users have been active within the past 30 days, Bloglines would represent only 1/10 as many total RSS subscriptions as My Yahoo, not 1/5 (as shown last week in Table 1). Not counting the 10 most popular feeds, Bloglines would represent only 46% more subscriptions than My Yahoo, not 192% more (as shown in Table 2).

My Yahoo Is Biggest, But Is It Best?

By any measure, My Yahoo is a huge online service that delivers news and entertainment feeds of all kinds to 25 million users, according to the company. Yahoo's Gatz makes a strong case that My Yahoo is the best online RSS reader, for the following reasons:

Non-RSS feeds. Yahoo has worked for more than 10 years to integrate constantly updated information from a wide variety of sources. This includes stock quotes, localized weather, current air fares, alerts to new e-mail (for users of Yahoo addresses), and more. Much of this information will never be available as an RSS feed. Stock prices, for example, may change thousands of times a day.

Mobile information. My Yahoo has integrated its feeds into a mobile product for users of advanced cell phones and other portable devices.

A dashboard to your life. With its easy page customization, My Yahoo aims to be "a dashboard to your life," not just an RSS reader, Gatz says. Once you get the layout the way you want it, My Yahoo offers you a view of just those bits of information you need to check every day.

Unlike Bloglines and NewsGator Online, My Yahoo does not use the right side of its two-column layout to show the full text of news items. Instead, both columns show only headlines (and, optionally, summaries). You must click a link to open a new window to see the full text. If you wish to see links in a left-hand pane that display the full HTML in the right pane when clicked, you might prefer Bloglines or NewsGator.

Bloglines Zooms Ahead With The Blogerati

Bloglines, which was established as recently as 2003, has become extremely popular with bloggers and those who thrive on reading blogs. Reports abound of Bloglines users who've subscribed to hundreds of different RSS feeds.

According to Bloglines' Fletcher, his service is designed to make the user's experience fast and efficient:

You open it, it's marked as read. The default behavior in Bloglines is not to show you an item you've previously seen, once you've opened a particular RSS feed you subscribe to. This behavior can be changed to retain items until you specifically delete them. But Fletcher believes Bloglines makes RSS reading fast, which users like, even if they're logging on to their Bloglines account from different machines (and therefore might want to see an item more than once).

Universal inbox. Like Yahoo.com, Bloglines encourages users to create e-mail accounts ending in Bloglines.com. "You can create an unlimited number of e-mail addresses at Bloglines.com," Fletcher says, "and they'll show up in your Bloglines accounts." This can reduce the number of browser windows you need to open to follow all of your e-mail and RSS notifications.

Saved searches. Both Bloglines and NewsGator Online have the ability to save a search, so you can check it later. "NewsGator requires you to pay for that service, whereas Bloglines has that for free," Fletcher says.

NewsGator's Reinacker disputes that, saying NewsGator Online users get up to three saved searches, called "smart feeds," for free. Paying users of various premium service levels can save between 10 and 150 searches.

NewsGator Covers The Waterfront

NewsGator Online may have achieved a lower growth rate than Bloglines because NewsGator's Web-based service originally charged a fee. Now that the basic service level is free, NewsGator Online is rapidly gaining users, in addition to the client-based versions the company offers, Reinacker says.

Aside from NewsGator Online, the company is perhaps better known for integrating with such corporate applications as Microsoft Outlook, Exchange, and Active Directory. NewsGator's synchronization software allows feeds to be updated across different computers, including mobile devices.

The company's Web-based service, NewsGator Online, offers several features that other online RSS readers can't currently match:

Job bulletins. In partnership with the employment service Work.com, NewsGator Online allows users to subscribe to help-wanted listings within any given radius of their chosen city. Reinacker cites this as an example of many up-to-the-minute services NewsGator is planning.

Integration with Media Center Edition. People who own a PC with Microsoft's Media Center Edition can get multimedia feeds, including video. The service is accessible to MCE users by clicking Online Spotlight, News and Sports, NewsGator MCE.

Podcasts that come to you. Perhaps the most compelling new feature of NewsGator Online is its support for "podcatching." This buzzword means automatically downloading audio and video programs that are posted on the Web. If you have NewsGator's free FeedStation application (now in beta) running on a home PC connected to an iPod, you can do amazing things, Reinacker says. "If you're at work, and you see a podcast you want, you click to download it to your iPod at home. This also works with Windows Media Player. FeedStation actually downloads the stuff and puts it in your playlist at home."

This support for podcasts was recognized by Audible.com, a large Internet source of audio material, when it announced on June 24 that its content is now available via RSS through FeedStation.

John Federico, a marketing executive with Audible, said in an interview that this capability is currently supported only by FeedBurner, which integrates with NewsGator and its client-based subsidiary FeedDemon, and not other RSS readers.

"There's a link in Bloglines, and you click the link and download the podcast manually, and many people are happy with that," Federico said. "They probably have something [automatic] in the works, but not yet."

Conclusion

If you absolutely have to have stock quotes and local weather included on the same page as your online RSS feeds and other news, then My Yahoo is the only choice for you. The variety of sources that My Yahoo integrates is unparalleled.

For everyone who needs the ability to read a set of RSS feeds on different machines in different settings, NewsGator beats the competition. NewsGator's early support for podcasting, and its wide product range, which scales from a single user all the way up to the needs of a multinational enterprise, gives you the widest set of options to choose from.

Remember, online RSS aggregators allow you to read your feeds almost anywhere in the world, but they're not for everyone. Web-based RSS readers, for example, cannot easily download intranet feeds. These require ID-and-password authentication when a user is outside the corporate firewall.

In a future column, I'll examine client-based RSS readers, which solve this and other problems that can stump browser-based services.






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