Feed Wrangler as your Google Reader replacement

Smart streams, search and third-party party

It's been less than a week since I started using Feed Wrangler so you shouldn't read what I have to say. I'm having the urge to find a RSS feed sync service replacement before Google Reader shuts down in two days; I'm sure you are too. What is important to know is that Feed Wrangler allows you to import the RSS subscriptions you have collected over the years and carry on with your feed reading without major disruption. But it can also do so much more.

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To sell new users on the idea, developer David Smith has set up a paid-for service with an annual fee and what I consider a set of demo apps (free) for iPhone and iPad. Ultimately, Feed Wrangler wants to be the syncing service and not the final app you launch everyday. The API allows third-party developers to integrate the service as a replacement of Google Reader so you can read your RSS feeds via Feed Wrangler through your app of choice — not necessarily the Spartan iOS apps that come for free with your subscription.

Why Feed Wrangler?

A lot of free and paid services are sprouting to fill Google Reader's market gap. Whichever you choose is going to be different to what you're used to. For me, I wanted something that could be the backbone of multiple apps across platforms and ideally be compatible with the apps I use (Reeder). Like Marco Arment, I don't think having a restrictive service for a single app is the way to go.

Second, I want to have some idea of what's going on. I'm lost with apps that lay out a fake magazine without showing you what's been read and what's new; leaving out Flipboard, Pulse or others like Zite. Feed Wrangler's web interface serves as a reader and manager of the content, which you can rearrange or tweak directly on the iOS apps.

Third is simply the affinity with the ideas of the developer. David Smith explains the motivations to come up with such a service on his interview with Myke Hurley on episode 46 of the CMD+Space podcast. If a one-man-band is creating a RSS sync service with some originality and a certain direction, of course I want to join this trip.

Wrangling your content without folders

Once you have subscribed to Feed Wrangler and import your existing Google Reader feeds, the first thing you will notice is that folders are gone. The old structure where you would keep a handful of publications in separate groups is not supported out of the box. Initially, this is a let down; however, there's a point to it.

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Instead of giving you an endless list of unread items, Feed Wrangler plays with the huge pool of articles from your subscriptions. The service allows you to search, filter and group content from different publications with something called Smart Streams. These streams are collections of articles picked following simple sets of rules you assign using keywords, new or old items and the publications you're interested.

To give you an idea, I set up a "Feed Wrangler stories" stream to display all the mentions of the service from a group of bloggers interested in app development. I did so by using the keyword 'Feed+Wrangler' and selecting individually the RSS feeds manually. The result is a list of the blogging conversation about Feed Wrangler, often with people quoting each other. There's no need to click and read the source as it's very likely the original article will be included in the stream!

In the traditional way of reading Google Reader, I would skim through a bunch of stories until I found something I liked and probably Instapapered it to read later when I would be in the mood or have more time. Smart Feeds change this obsolete workflow somehow: now I filter old and new feeds to do some research about a particular topic — as opposed to going through all the post on TUAW on chronological order. You can still save to read later as Instapaper and Pocket are supported and have prominent buttons on both the web interface and the apps.

Quick search and filtering

The search function is powerful and responsive. It doesn't require a complex set up either if you don't want to. Just use the search box with the correct syntax such as "double quotes" and + symbol for exact words.

Imagine the situation. I'm preparing a review for recently launched iOS game and want to know what other sites are saying about it. Simply launch Feed Wrangler on my iPhone, type the keywords correctly formatted on the search bar and you're done. You could do this with a Google search and multiple tabs open on your browser but you wouldn't be able to skim through the results as quickly.

Although I have used the term filter as in 'refine results' in Feed Wrangler it's used as 'mute'. You can create a temporary filter that will mark as read (mute) the content that matches a particular keyword. To test this feature I've tried to silence everything to do with the Ouya console without much luck, so I'm not sure how well this is implemented right now.

There are other tweaks to personalise how you consume your feeds. Shawn Blanc has a list including a method to replicate your folders, displaying a chronological list of posts for a selected group of websites.

Initial thoughts

Without much time to get used to the service, I'm forcing myself to ditch my preferred apps for now and stick with the official Feed Wrangler app for iOS. A review of the app is in due course; today I wanted to talk about the service itself.

Accustomed to reading RSS feeds in a certain way, we tend to be very wary of changes. This is the first time we have a real opportunity to change some of an old-fashioned way of consuming news, killing time and procrastinating.

Feed Wrangler is true to its name: while it satisfies the need to have a usable RSS reader replacement by July, it challenges your old habits encouraging you to 'wrangle' your content in clever ways. Your feeds are now a dynamic thing, not a list of 1,000+ items waiting in a queue. For such a short period of time using it, I feel the change has been worth it.

As third-party developers integrate Wrangler's API, we are to expect more reinterpretations of filtering as streams. Silvio Rizzi's Reeder — my favourite Google Reader client for iPhone, iPad and Mac — has already announced support for the service although smart streams won't make it yet to the upcoming 3.2 version currently in App Store review.

As an ending note, if you have decided to test Feed Wrangler for the small annual fee, subscribing on the website instead of using the app's in-app-purchase option will give the developer more flexibility. This is what this is all about:

Sustainable — Feed Wrangler is funded directly by your ongoing support. It isn't a fly-by-night outfit without a business model. You are my customer and it is my job to create and sustain a product you'll want to continue to use.