SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
I’ve spent a few hours using Digg Reader beta on the web and on iOS and I’m extremely impressed with what the Digg team at Betaworks has managed to build in just three months. After speaking with Digg’s general manager Jake Levine, it’s clear that Digg Reader has the potential to play a big role in the way Betaworks as a company reshapes the future of online news.
Make no mistake, Digg Reader is not a drop-in replacement for Google Reader. Standard Google Reader features such-as search, tagging and more customized ways to view items are not available right now (all of those features are in the works) and the Digg team is still figuring out and finessing its larger vision for the world of news. Still, even in this early state, Digg Reader shows lots of potential.
Right now, when you sign into Digg Reader, users are able to import their Google Reader data directly from their Google account. There isn’t a way to upload an OPML file, in part because the Digg team isn’t sure how Google will handle data exports after July 1. It’s also worth noting that like Feedly — there isn’t a way to get your data out of Digg Reader. Levine says that an OPML export option will be added soon because “Digg wants to be a good data citizen and offer users access to their information.
After importing your data, the Digg Reader experience is for now, focused on being minimal and staying out of the user’s way. A nice touch is that all Google Reader keybindings work exactly as you expect. This is a great touch for power Google Reader users who have those commands ingrained in their muscle memory.
Users can browse feeds through a list or expanded view — which is exactly like it sounds. In place of Google’s “Trends” section, Digg Reader has an area called “Popular.” Using algorithms from Digg’s own data scientists and feedback from its apps and website, the popular section ranks articles from your subscribed sources in order of interest. It’s kind of a lower level version of the “temperature” ranking that Shaun Inman built-into his fantastic self-hosted RSS reader, Fever, back in 2009. Levine says that in the future, even more social cues will inform this algorithm and its ranking.
Media plays back inline within posts exactly as one would expect. Excerpted feeds can open in a new tab, also as expected. From within Digg Reader, users can share to Facebook or Twitter and save articles to Instapaper (now owned by Digg’s parent company Betaworks), Pocket or Readability. Levine told me that the Digg wants to work with all services and just because Instapaper is under its auspices doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to support or work with other read-later services.
Digg Reader — and the main Digg site — also have an easy way to save items for reading later. Users can click on a bookmark icon and that will designate an item as “saved.” Saved items are visible within Digg Reader and on Digg.com. If you hook up your Pocket or Instapaper accounts to Digg, saving an article on Digg will also save the article on those services. That’s a really nice feature and one that required special hacks or IFTTT plugins for Google Reader.
Users can also view items they have dug in the “Digg” section of Google Reader. If you want to Digg a story you’re reading, you can do that by pressing the Digg button or pressing “d.” Digg offers up a public or private RSS feed of items a users Diggs or saves. This is a nice option for power users who like to publish their “like” lists.
Of course, the desktop is only one place users read and consume news. An integral part of any newsreader is a mobile app or the ability to support third-party mobile apps. An update of Digg for iOS with Digg Reader support will be out on Wednesday and an Android update is due by the end of July.
I used Digg Reader on the iPhone and iPad and found the experience to be well-designed and intuitive. This isn’t a surprise because the Digg team is the same team that built the excellent news discovery app News.me. A nice touch is that even on the mobile version, users can import their Google Reader settings. The mobile version doesn’t allow for deleting feeds or folders (at least, not yet), but it lets user browse feeds, read articles, Digg, save or share them elsewhere. And like the desktop site, links can be sent to Instapaper or Pocket.
The Digg team doesn’t want to be the only mobile solution in town, however. I asked Levine if the team was still focused on offering an API for developers to support its syncing solution. The answer was an unequivocal yes. “We think that products get better and more possibilities are unleashed when you invite others to join in,” he told me.
Feedly — a company that has gained millions of users in the wake of the Google Reader shutdown — announced that it is working with third-party app developers too. Still, having multiple potential endpoints for a syncing solution is not a bad thing. Not at all.
Levine estimates that about half of Digg’s current traffic comes from mobile, but he expects Digg Reader traffic to skew slightly more towards the desktop — especially with power users. Still, understanding the role of mobile in the newsreading experience, the team is committed to not making the experience a second-class citizen.
In this way, Digg Reader has a chance at actually usurping Google Reader, who never had a great mobile experience and relied on third-parties to use an undocumented API to make the best out of the experience.
Two of the hallmark features of Google Reader were its speed and its stability. “The best parts of Google Reader are things that users took for granted because they were reliant on Google’s fantastic infrastructure,” Levine explained. The biggest challenge with building Digg Reader was replicating that sense of speed and reliability but on AWS (Amazon Web Services), rather than Google’ far more advanced infrastructure.
It turns out, keeping things fast and working well across devices is not trivial. Sync is a major challenge as Brent Simmons (original creator of NetNewsWire, one of the first good RSS readers for Mac and a former employee of NewsGator, a company that did sync really well until Google Reader ruined the market for paid services) explains, yet as Alex Kessinger reiterates, its also an essential part of the RSS experience. It’s equally essential that the service is fast. No one wants to wait around for feeds to load or to update. It should “just work.”
I asked Levine how confident he felt about Digg Reader’s ability to support the influx of new users that are about to hit the system. “It’s a good question, actually,” he replied. “We’re going to start on-boarding users in groups, not one at a time, so that we can know how many more AWS instances we need to spin up to support user demand and to find bugs.” The good thing about opening up to the public is that the team can have a much better understanding of how certain tasks will be used, which can help with optimizing the code.
Still, its important for users to remember that Digg Reader is still in beta. Bugs will happen and there are bound to be some teething problems.
Although Levine stressed that the core features of Digg Reader will always remain free, the company has made no secret of its intention to offer a freemium version of the product. Pay features will be focused on the needs of the heaviest Reader users. The rationale here is twofold. First, having a premium product helps fund development and ongoing support. Second, it helps offer users a feeling of stability. “Lots of users are feeling abandoned by Google Reader,” Levine notes.
He’s right. One of the most common refrains I’ve heard from the heaviest of Google Reader users is that they would be willing to pay for the product to still exist as it does today. The idea of paying for a service as a way to ensure its continued existence is something that begins to make sense after a major tool you rely on disappears. Google Reader was the most recent — and perhaps one of the larger — product shutdowns, but it’s not a unique case.
Last month, Mashable’s Seth Fiegerman profiled Digg’s parent company Betaworks and its long term focus on digital news. A big part of that future will rely on news discovery and curation.
It occurs to me that a reader is a great way to build out a database that can help power some of the human and algorithmic recommendations for news. For now, Digg Reader and Digg are mostly separate, but I can see a time when stories that appear on Digg.com come directly from stories that are liked, read or shared using Digg Reader. In that way, the reader becomes not just a way to consume news, but also a way to program news. It’s an interesting idea, that’s for sure.
Of course, Digg isn’t the only company hoping to take over the market left by Google Reader. In addition to startups such as Feedly, larger companies are getting into the game too. AOL launched its reader project earlier this week. Facebook is also rumored to be entering the market.
I asked Levine why he thought so many companies were so eager to fill the void left by Google Reader, especially after years of stasis in the overall market. ” I think Google came in and sucked up all the air in the space with Google Reader,” he said. “We’re all bashing Google Reader now, but the truth is, it was a great product and it did stuff nothing else did, plus it was free.” In effect, by so completely winning the battle over RSS, Google Reader inadvertently shutdown the ability for competitors to innovate.
It would take Flipboard — a wholly different take on RSS — to remake the news reading market for a different generation of users. For Digg, and for others, the challenge of the post-Google Reader era will be to make something that is different from the Flipboard model, but designed for the next ten years of news, not the last ten years.
Thank you, TiA