Four years with Reeder

Sleeping on the throne of RSS readers

To trace my first contact with Reeder I need dig for some emails in late 2009 with a developer in Switzerland called Silvio Rizzi. As part of the beta testing for a new RSS client for the iPhone, I was reporting bugs and sharing some ideas, which poor Silvio dutifully addressed. Little I knew this new app would change the way I would read newspapers and websites for the next four years. A staple in premium mobile and desktop software.

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The screenshots I've rescued from the early days show interesting applications of what we associate today, with a bit of disgust, with skeuomorphism. What catches my eye is that some of the early design decisions, specially in terms of user interaction, continue to be good ideas today and are still present on the late 2013 version: Reeder 2.

Specifically designed to blend with iOS 7 and sold as a separate app, the new Reeder will be received with sourness or joy depending on your side of the coin. Although the app had included support for alternative RSS syncing services, for most of us, the old Reeder died with the Google Reader apocalypse. Both iPad and Mac users were left in the dark. The iPhone app eventually rose from the ashes with basic support for the new RSS guys Feed Wrangler and Feedly, but users had already started the exodus to apps like Mr. Reader.

The first Reeder for iPhone

This brings us to Reeder 2, which debuted in anticipation of iOS 7 and was a great introduction to the aesthetics and gestures on the new operating system. Notably, the app ditches the darker colours and textures in favour of clean sheets with some pale grey details that add depth. Like the previous version 3.0, the navigation bars use the same colour as the article background, this time looking a bit more bleached but not as bleached as default Apple apps like Mail.

Few new things and a new look

There are new touches, yes, but the layout and navigation structure remains the same — this is good news. For an app that people use daily, changes without justification are rarely welcome. The navigation hierarchy is still the same, allowing you to drill from left to right from feed level, article view to the original in a web browser within the app.

There are changes in the way articles are displayed, but nothing too groundbreaking. At a time when even "conservative" apps like Instapaper are introducing a selection of fonts and moderate colour theme alternates, it's disappointing to see the formatting options limited to line height, text size and title alignment. I'm guessing the option to turn images black and white — now displayed at full width — and reduce the iPhone brightness to minimum using Control Center could do for a night reading mode, but this is not what you expect from a premium app.

What I do like a lot are the gestures included, which were present at some extent in the previous version but I probably ended up disabling them. A lot of work has gone rethinking how the app is used on devices with a longer screen, essentially getting all the usual actions at a thumb reach. Swiping left from the right border summons a sharing pane with options to save to read later, copy link and the usual long list of compatible third party services. I've found myself swiping left on Safari many times whenever I wanted to send a website to Instapaper just to realise this is a UI element specific for Reeder.

Making up for the lack of new features, Reeder 2 supports Feed Wrangler smart streams (I keep calling them folders). The implementation is a bit odd, as it places the folders at the bottom of your feed subscription list, forcing you to scroll to the bottom every time you want to access them. For a RSS reader that was known to be the fastest feed catcher on the App Store, some implementations don't make this extremely obvious. At some point Reeder would begin with a quick round to download the text of unread items, leaving images and multimedia content for later. Perhaps as an interface issue, the app tends to show the message 'Syncing Smart Streams', making Feed Wrangler look like a slow service. To be fair, _davidsmith's own app is not any faster and seems to fetch smart folders separately from the main list of feeds too.

Not the end of the road

Given the difficulties and external constrains that lead to Silvio Rizzi pulling Reeder from the App Store, it's great to see the app back. It's weird though, to see the timing of the release and why not, the heavy featuring Apple is giving Reeder as an app designed for iOS 7. I can't help to think how useful something like Background App Refresh would work here, and there's nothing of it. I tend to bump into some odd formatting and videos not recognised on feeds — might not be Reeder's fault but this is the place where I notice it.

It would be easy to pinpoint some tweaks and improvements that could make it into the next Reeder 2 update. The most worrying issue is the chronic slow development cycle, never knowing if something apparently as simple as displaying Feed Wrangler's smart folders will be changed to the top of the list in the next months. It's time for change. Time for iteration.

Maybe there's no business in RSS reading or premium pricing at all; it's hard to explain the little risks taken on a new app. The Iconfactory keeps pushing revisions of Twitterrific to utilise new software and hardware, making sure their Twitter client is still relevant in the post iOS 6 App Store. Not like they are sleeping on their throne.