May 5, 2014
What Not Dying Looks Like

It’s always odd to hear people say RSS is dead. The fact is, RSS is easily the most successful stealth, insurgent technology on the web. It is pervasive and is the engine for much of the Internet.

Apple uses it to syndicate computer updates. Your podcast subscriptions rely on RSS. Every Wordpress blog is RSS enabled and every major news site is broadcasting via RSS. They’re all syndicated. They all have an RSS feed. It’s the background hum of the Internet.

There are millions of feeds out there, continually connecting users to their favorite content. Just about everything online except Facebook and Twitter is available via RSS.

Even more importantly, RSS has proven to be resilient and durable regardless of what corporate interests want to do with it. Netscape invented the underlying code in the late 90’s, and then took away all documentation and support in 2001 after AOL bought them out. But even that didn’t slow the dissemination. 

And then last year, the biggest player on the Internet took its ball and went home when Google killed its Reader. Despite the fact that Google retired the most popular RSS application on the Net, it did not affect RSS in any appreciable way. All of those feeds are still available and users are still getting their content delivered exactly as they want it. What greater proof is there of the resiliency of RSS?

In fact, what might have seemed like a disaster at first is perhaps the best thing that could happen to the technology. Remember, RSS is a technology and a service; it is not a product. AOL thought they could squash this great idea, but a community of developers took the idea and ran. Then Google thought they could abandon the technology and assumed everyone would gravitate to their social networks instead.

In fact, any number of companies can go out of business, but nobody can stop anybody from publishing and reading RSS feeds. 

However, just because a technology is widely available does not guarantee success. What makes RSS truly powerful is that users still have the control. The beauty of the system is it that no one can force you to be tracked and no one can force you to watch ads. There are no security issues I am aware of and no one ever has to know what feeds you subscribe to. This may be the last area of the Internet that you can still say things like this.

Google Reader was a monopolist product built on an anti-monopolist technology. Now that they’re gone, RSS is once again anyone’s game. You’re going to see a lot more innovation and new stuff for RSS. I never know if its supposed to be a blessing or a curse to live in interesting times. But I have to believe this RSS is entering maybe the most interesting time in its long history.

April 28, 2014
Let’s Keep the Internet Dumb

The Internet is a brilliant invention. It’s complex, elegant, and took some of the brightest minds on Earth to create. But at heart it is a dumb network. The genius of the Internet is that the actual transport of your data is completely neutral by design. The intelligence is in the applications that run on what is a set of dumb pipes.

Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon are not dumb. And they aren’t interested in owning dumb networks. They think that because they own some of infrastructure they should be allowed to make it more intelligent. They also think Google, Netflix, and Microsoft will pay for a supercharged, tier one service that moves their packets along faster. Upstart Internet companies that can’t pay extra will have to settle for slower service.

Net neutrality is the reason we have this wonderfully dumb network. While it might not be dead, it is mortally wounded. The FCC says it is not killing Net neutrality rules, but will change them later this year. They only promise that telecom companies will have to act in a “commercially responsible manner.”

Right. Like they always have.

The kind of network intelligence they are proposing kills innovation. When the Internet is neutral, the services that run on it have to be smarter. They have to be more clever and user-friendly than their competitors. When money becomes the differentiator, innovation is devalued and incumbents have all the power.

No one is going to try a new music service that keeps dropping songs because Pandora is hogging the bandwidth. No one is even going to think about launching a new online movie service if Netflix and Amazon have access to the fastest pipes.

Service providers claim they’re making the Internet more robust and powerful. When AT&T had monopoly control over the entire phone system, they made a system that was hyper-robust, intelligent, and powerful. But while they hardly ever dropped a call, there was very little innovation for the user for more than a century. We had rotary, landline phones in 1890 and rotary, landline phones in 1990. Plus maybe call waiting and voicemail.

The only solution is more competition. How many options do you have for Internet access? If you want a different Internet provider where you live, who would you call? The cable company? Maybe DSL?

If that remains the case, we will soon have gatekeepers with the unchecked power at every door.

Let’s stop pretending the Internet is still a beautiful, pure and elegant technology that leaked out of a government research lab and magically gave everyone free access to a better life. They own the Internet now.

But there are lots of ways to change the dynamic. For one, we have to force monopoly networks to open their networks to competition. Your cable company can’t be the only service provider to use its fiber cables. Those networks are a public utility. They have to be forced to lease it out to competition. If the networks are going to control what we see, we can’t let them have monopoly control.

It will take a lot of time and hard work to change the rules for the better. But we can start today. We can still fight to keep the net dumb. Start by signing a petition. There is still time to come out swinging for neutrality. http://www.savetheinternet.com/sti-home

April 22, 2014
Ad giants enforcing web standards? Hmmph.

The Wall Street Journal says Google is considering giving a boost in its search-engine results to websites that use encryption.

Is Google being a bully? Are they a force for good? I’m not sure it matters. What concerns me is the idea that a company is now so powerful and influential that it can force the rest of us on the internet to make decisions that may or may not be in our best interests.

I know a lot of people lost their faith in the company when they dropped Google Reader. But I think we all more or less understand why it happened.  I recently got one of those calls confirming recent credit card transactions and they described Google as an advertising company.  Nothing about technology or the internet.

Google’s power comes from the fact that, to a very large extent, they control what people see on the Internet. They create the system and they game the system to their own ends. They offer a service for free to the end user- provided they can make money off that service. 

It is probably inevitable that almost all technologies we depend on for our online experience will be heavily influenced by a few powerful organizations. The question is, where does that influence and control end?

Here’s a useful thought experiment. Imagine that Google takes away search results. Search may seem like the company’s essential function. But why does Google have to keep serving up search results from the Internet? Very few people look beyond the first couple results anyway.

Why wouldn’t a company in a position of almost total control serve up nothing but sponsored content if they could? Or just content only from sites that jump through their hoops. (Content from unencrypted sites would almost never be seen if Google changes its algorithm to de-value their content.)  

In fact, Google would probably make more money than they already do if they took this approach. The idea that a search engine doesn’t show search results isn’t too far fetched once you think about it.  No different than Facebook neglecting to show you posts from a person or company that you follow.

I don’t expect everyone to trust me or assume that we have their best interests at heart. We want people to gravitate to the Old Reader because it gives them what they ask for. It’s not altruism- it’s just how the open web works. We will certainly make decisions about how to run the service that not everyone will agree with.

Critics have said that RSS has not always been as consumer-friendly as social media. But what is more user-friendly than giving you exactly what you want to see, and not what a single company wants you to see? That’s how the Internet is supposed to work. 

By its very nature, The Old Reader is not a closed system and will never have the kind of concentrated market power to control what you see. The very nature of RSS is that it delivers the content that you request.

We don’t need some Advertising firm telling us how to consume or construct our web.  Do we?

March 18, 2014
You Are Not a Product: Why Premium Pricing is Here

It made us angry to see great products like Google Reader shut down for no good reason. It was frightening when we heard The Old Reader might have to close its doors.

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and just hope that there will always be great free software for content delivery. And if you do eventually have to join some closed social network, it can’t be that terrible, right? It might be controlled by a giant Internet company, but hey, it’ll be free, right?

Why Freemium is the Thing

Since we introduced Premium pricing for The Old Reader, we’ve gotten some thoughtful comments, as well as some pushback. Why should I pay for a technology that’s always been free? Isn’t the whole point of RSS that it’s part of the free Internet? I want to explain why we’re here and why we’ve adopted the Premium pricing plan ($2/month for 500 subscriptions with full-text search).

RSS has been neglected and abused, but as I’ve said before, I believe it will be the preferred content-delivery format once people tire of private/closed networks. Twitter, Facebook and the rest aren’t delivering content- they’re delivering you to advertisers. RSS doesn’t fit that model. That’s why the big players aren’t supporting it. 

Get Your Sponsored Content Somewhere Else

One of the most common questions we get is why didn’t we just bring in advertising. We settled on the freemium model because its the one that supports the service the best while doing the least harm. The more I use Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, the more I see the subtle and insidious ways they control what I see, what I do, and what I can say, all in the name of advertising.

We’re trying to provide something the closed Internet doesn’t do- give you unfiltered access to the content you choose. The value in RSS is that it doesn’t try to make money by observing your online habits and feeding you sponsored content. But there are costs to making that possible.

We can learn more about you by building closed systems and tracking and targeting your every move and serving up ad content. But as we’ve said, ads introduce bias and distract from the primary purpose of RSS readers. RSS should aggregate the content you choose from the web, not push advertising to you.  

Besides, ads won’t work. Most of you won’t look at the ads. You will do what I do- block them with Adblock or some other tool or just flat out ignore them. Advertisements that don’t get attention don’t pay any bills. Then we’re forced to find ways to make those ads effective, or lose advertisers. That means putting our resources into forcing you to watch more ads, click on more ads, or some other gambit that has nothing to do with getting the content you want.

Finally, an RSS reader knows a lot about people’s interests, but we don’t want to exploit that fact. We should be using that information to find more stuff you like, not selling it to advertisers. We believe in privacy and do our best to protect it. To maximize ad revenues we’d need to violate your privacy to some degree.

It’s Not a Free Ride

But why should Premium users have to pay the bill for the free users? It’s important to remember that this is a social network, and the more friends you have to share with, the better. Not all your friends will be Premium/power RSS users. But the more people using the service, the more great content you can find. (And not sponsored content from advertisers.)

In addition, we hope that over time we are able to attract more and more of our free users to Premium accounts. We know it’ll be a small percentage but we’re working hard to build incredible functionality worthy of a small monthly fee. Besides, I know you’ve heard the “it’s less than cup of coffee” line a thousand times, but we REALLY think it’s a reasonable amount for the power you have. If you’re a power user, know that the money we make from your subscription will be plowed into development. Real, honest-to-goodness development.

I know that there are still free RSS readers available. The Old Reader was completely free until a couple weeks ago. And for the VAST majority of our users it still can be completely free. The freemium model is important because we’re focused on making this a sustainable service that won’t be closing.

In The Words of a Wise Man…

Our goal isn’t just to keep The Old Reader chugging along, but to build an online platform and community that is an alternative to the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. I think Dave Winer said it best when he wrote in our blog comments:

We have as a community, been boring the hell out of users.

This what happens when a product doesn’t introduce any new features for 10 years! :-)

I’m talking about RSS, as a product — vs its competitors, Twitter and Facebook, which have been actively pushing new goodies for users.

We are not doing that in RSS.

So if we want to get users on board, and other developers, we have to move.

Everyone’s been doing it for themselves, and no one has been willing to go first with a new feature that might delight users, and inspire their competitors to follow them.

If we want to have a good open alternative to Twitter and Facebook, we have to do some new stuff!

We’re committed to the open web and giving you the best possible reading experience without sneaking in ads. And we’re also not going to be using your private information to sell you anything or help others sell you anything. That’s not just a promise. That’s the principle behind Premium membership. 

February 26, 2014
Extended Early Adopters Pricing

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We’re still getting a good flow of signups from existing users and users that have been in the free trial, so we’ve decided to keep our discounted pricing in place for a bit longer.  This will also give more time to those users who were waiting for paypal support.

Thanks again for all of your support.  Make sure to jump on the $2/month pricing while it’s available.  And, as always, thanks for using The Old Reader!

image source: http://www.stockvault.net/photo/117500/satisfied-cat

February 21, 2014
Premium Accounts FAQ

We’d like to give a quick status on the new Premium plans and thank you all for the support.  It’s been a little over a week since we introduced the new paid accounts and the support from our community has been terrific.  That said, we still have a ways to go to meet our goals and are working diligently to address as much of your input as possible.

Here are answers to many of the frequent questions that we’ve been receiving over the past week.

Q: Why no Paypal?

A: We just released Paypal payments. You can now use either secure credit card payments through Stripe, or checkout using Paypal.

Q: Why didn’t you do ads?

A: As we mentioned in our previous posts, we’re heavily committed to the open web and feel that ads put our neutrality in jeopardy.  We haven’t completely ruled out future advertising for non-premium accounts, but we will do everything possible to avoid that decision.

Q: What happens when my grace period or trial expires and I’m over the free feed limit?

A: If you’re over the limit and your trial is expired, then your feeds will stop updating. We won’t ever lock you out of The Old Reader, and you’ll always be able to see what your friends are sharing, and you’ll always be able to export your subscriptions to OPML.

Q: Does “6 months of post storage” extend to shared items and comments?

A: We keep shared items and comments forever. Those are never removed. The only posts that will ever be removed are the read and unread posts that you haven’t shared, liked, or starred.

Q: If feed refreshes are shared, how do the tiered feed refresh speeds work?

A: We do our best to store and fetch only unique feeds, so we fetch new posts for a feed once, and deliver the new posts for each user who is subscribed to that feed.

So, if one of the users who is subscribed to that feed decides to become a premium user, all of the feeds that user is subscribed to will begin updating faster. Any free users subscribed to the same feeds will get the faster refresh time as well.

Q: What is the Instapaper and Readability integration?

A: Instapaper and Readability integration is setup, so that if you go into settings and authorize those services, any time you Star a post, it will be shared to to those services. You don’t need to click “Sent to” and be redirected off to the other site. Just click Star and it all happens in the background.

Q: Where’s the bookmarklet?

A: The bookmarklet is a high priority feature for us. We think it’s a very valuable feature to be able to take any article you come across and put it into The Old Reader for later reading. It’s a bit of a big change, since now we don’t have the concept of a post without a feed, but we’re on it and it will be available soon.

Thanks for using The Old Reader!

February 12, 2014
The Old Reader Premium!

We are thrilled to announce that we are rolling out Premium accounts for The Old Reader. Since taking over the application in August we’ve made tremendous strides to improve the dependability and speed of the application. We’ve also begun the process of building and releasing heavily requested features and have worked diligently on user support. We believe The Old Reader is now truly a world-class application!

Our next goal is to ensure the long term financial viability of The Old Reader. Hosting, development, and support are not inexpensive and while it’s never been our goal to get rich off of this application, long term sustainability and growth will require revenue. So we explored several models for generating revenues including a premium offering and advertising. In the end, we’d like to avoid advertising as we feel it’s too invasive and runs counter to our strong belief in the open web. So we started working on a premium offering that would allow 90% of our users to continue on with a free account that is largely unchanged from what they are using today.

What will you get with The Old Reader Premium?
- Full-text search
- Faster feed refresh times
- Up to 500 Subscriptions
- 6 months of post storage
- Instapaper and Readability integration
- Early access to new features

What will it cost?
The Old Reader Premium will cost $3/month or $30/year. However, for the next 2 weeks (or up to 5,000 accounts) we’ll be offering the service for $2/month or $20/year and we will lock you into that price for a minimum of the next 2 years. This is our way of saying thanks to our existing users and hopefully getting the Premium service off to a great start.

Do I have to upgrade?
No! 90% of our users can continue on for free just as they are today. However, users with more than 100 feeds will need to upgrade to premium. Otherwise, all functionality will remain available to free accounts. We also offer a 2 week trial period for the premium service and will even allow that trial period to get extended for those still interested in moving to Premium.

We hope you are as excited about TOR Premium as we are. It’s a great value for a service that we know our users will love. Thanks for continuing to support us and thanks for using The Old Reader!

December 13, 2013
Via The Old Reader - New Send To Feature

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Last night we introduced another new feature called Send To. Like Starred items, this has been a frequently requested addition and something we’ve been itching to get into the application. Send To allows you to share posts from The Old Reader to external services such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Evernote, Google+, or email. By default, email, Facebook, and Twitter are available in your Send To list but you can add others or configure custom options in Settings under the Social tab. We’ve put together a short page with some common services you might want to add to your Share To list here. Email us with any you think would be a good fit for this list.

Also, there’s another small feature that went out last night. We added pubsubhubbub to the user’s profile RSS feed (http://theoldreader.com/profile/[USERNAME].rss), so profile RSS feeds now provide near real time updating. Small, but it might be worthy of mention.

We hope you like these new features as much as we do.

Thanks for using The Old Reader!

Photo Credit: 

http://wordsmoker.com/blog/2009/01/15/welcome-to-the-happy-baby-kitten-club/

December 3, 2013
Starred Items!

We’re excited to announce that starred items are now live in The Old Reader.  This has been one of the most requested features and something we’ve felt belongs in the application for a long time.  Hotkey (f) and API support are also available.  Starred items will automatically be sent to pocket for users that have it activated.

As most of you know, our focus over the past few months was to increase performance and stability of The Old Reader.  We’ve made tremendous strides and can now focus on adding functionality and making this tool a long-term sustainable platform built for the Open Web.  The best is yet to come.

Thanks for using The Old Reader!

(www.catgifs.org/2013/09/07/cat-surprised-cat-animated-gif/)

November 20, 2013
RSS and the Open Web

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This post is not about the day to day operations of The Old Reader or anything of that nature.  It’s about how our team came to get involved with RSS and how we see the future of this application and technology that we value so highly.

As a long time user of RSS and Google Reader, I’ve long appreciated the benefits of the technology.  Like many people, my use of Google Reader faded a bit as social media platforms took hold.  But, I’d always go back to Google Reader when I wanted to cut through the noise of social networks and focus on things I’m really passionate about.  Google Reader wasn’t my “second screen” application where I’d go to take a break from work.  It filled a much more essential need for me by providing these three features:

1.  Unread items are kept in a queue.  I don’t miss things.  No algorithm chooses what to show me or not show me.

2.  It’s an archive of blogs that I value and posts that I’ve read.

3.  I can follow whatever I want from anywhere on the web.  It embodies the open web.

For my professional career in web research and development, I can’t really live without these features.  I can follow twitter feeds or like Facebook pages, but I’m certain to miss important content from people who I highly value.  I need those items queued, archived, and I need to be able to subscribe to anybody on the entire open web.  I can’t be limited to those authors who choose to enter into private social networks and I don’t want to have to constantly check my accounts for updates.

So this leads me to how we got involved in The Old Reader.  When Google Reader shut it’s doors, my business partner Jim did some research and tried several services and suggested I’d like The Old Reader the best.  So we both moved on over.  I read some articles trying to understand why Google Reader would shut down and one really stuck with me.  It hypothesized that Google had been following the lead of companies like Facebook and Twitter by turning their backs on the open web and trying to build their own private/closed social networks.  It’s frankly hard to argue against this theory.

However, we see this trend of migrating from the open web to private networks as cyclical.  How long will it be before your Facebook stream is so full of promoted content, bizarre algorithmic decisions, and tracking cookie based shopping cart reminders that you won’t be getting any valuable information?  For as little as $60, a business can promote a page to Facebook users.  It won’t be long before your news feed is worthless.  So we jumped at the opportunity to get involved with developing and managing The Old Reader.  We believe in it.

As we’ve been looking to grow our engineering team at Levee Labs and The Old Reader we’ve met with a number of bright young people that are surprisingly unaware of RSS.  They say “I recognize the RSS icon, but haven’t really ever used it.”  Is it possible that there is a lost generation of internet users that are completely unfamiliar with RSS?  Are they unfamiliar with the idea of the open web too?  We believe that’s the case and we’ve been working hard to come up with ideas that’ll expose that generation to RSS, The Old Reader, and the open web.  It’s what made the internet great to begin with and it’s coming back.

Thanks for using The Old Reader!