Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review of Fever self hosted RSS web reader

I talked about the Google Reader demise a few weeks ago, and the search is on for a replacement. In an attempt to assess the current solutions, I'm going to write a couple of posts about the different ones I've been trying. One of the intriguing near term solutions (available today) is Fever, a self hosted web based solution. Several geekier types in my social circles had already switched to this prior to the Google Reader announcement, and it works somewhat seamlessly with the Reeder app for the iPhone, which I was a heavy user of with Google Reader.

The self-hosting part of Fever is a bit of a challenge for me, seeing as I did away with my hosting a few years ago because I didn't have the time or wherewithal to continue to deal with it.

I stumbled across this 2010 post from MacStories which motivated me to try it out - seemed low risk and relatively inexpensive, and in the near term, I wouldn't have to deal with the crushing load on some of the other alternatives. So I took the plunge and installed it on a Nearly Free Speech instance. It took a little bit longer than 10 minutes, but not much.

I'm pretty happy with it so far. The web interface is slick and well designed with keyboard shortcuts for just about everything you could possibly do in the program. It has a sharing interface with a few key services built in and the ability to add more as long as they support a share link (I was able to add Google+ in a few minutes and it's as seamless as Reader was). This is key, as I want to be able to add services besides Twitter and Facebook and most other services don't bother or give you the interface.

You can set it up through cron to refresh feeds periodically as well - this was easy on my host as they have a GUI to add scheduled commands. I'm not 100% clear on if it's working all the time, but it does seem to usually come back with feeds somewhat updated if I haven't visited for a while. The downside if you don't do this is that you'll wait for the feeds to refresh for a few minutes if you don't have anything cached already. This is particularly noticeable on the iPhone clients. I think you could also just leave it up in a browser window on a running computer and it would refresh every 10-15 minutes.

I'm Feeling Kind of Warm
While Fever can be used as a straight feed reader a la Google Reader, it's unique feature is that it bubbles up hot topics into a Hot List using a degree scale based on the temperature of the human body (hence the name "Fever"). It does this by dividing feeds into two groups - the Kindling and the Sparks. Kindling are your must read feeds, and Sparks are other feeds that you'd want to influence your Hot list but not necessairily read all the time. I haven't used this feature much yet and haven't added any sparks - Gabe over at MacDrifter tries to quantify this feature and his review is worth a read if you're considering Fever.

Some of the suggestions for using sparks I've seen elsewhere include putting mostly link blogs there, or putting a feed from Pinboard or Instapaper or other services there. It's something I may or may not get to, but as some of the other reviews point out, it's not necessary to use Sparks to use the service mostly as a straight reader.

Mobile Devices with Fever
Shaun Inman, the Fever developer, is a Mac/iOS/Web guy so there's no support for Android devices - a showstopper if you're an Android user. He admits this in his Google Reader fallout post (a few other caveats there to be aware of as well - he's full time on another project right now so his support is minimal). I'm currently an iOS user, so no issues there. I hooked it up to Reeder on my iPhone and also bought Sunstroke, another iPhone only Fever client.

Both Reeder and Sunstroke are good clients - Reeder is the same experience on Fever as it is on the Google Reader back-end (except it takes longer to refresh if you don't set up the aforementioned cron job). Sunstroke handles the Fever specific features of the Hot List better than Reeder, but that's the only major difference.

Sadly, there is no viable native iPad client.  The iPad Reeder app is not compatible with Fever yet - it's due for a refresh and I'm sure that might get pushed out a bit as the developer of that product figures out what else he can use as a back-end with Reader's demise. Adding Fever functionality to this client would be a great solution for me in the short term. The web interface is passable in Safari on iOS, but this is definitely a gap that I would run into sometimes. I'm hoping with Reader's demise that we get more apps that will hook into Fever's API as an option, but I'm realistic in that this will probably never be a big enough userbase for some clients to support.

Fever is not for the casual user, or for someone that doesn't have any server side self hosting experience. But I don't have tons and I was able to figure it out, and once you set it up, there's nothing terribly technical about maintaining it. The host I'm currently using is inexpensive, at the most I should have to pay a dollar or two to self host. I'm planning on firing up full service hosting at some point in the next year and I'll move it over there if I'm still using it.

Fever is also probably not a good idea if you're a heavy consumer of feeds on your iPad, at least until a native client comes along.

If you primarily consume on your desktop and iPhone, though, this is a viable solution - which you will not have to worry about scaling or going away anytime soon. It's in your complete control.

I'm going to keep using it while continuing to check out other services. I'll write up the other two services I'm trying, Newsblur and The Old Reader, in the coming days. I'm also intrigued by Feed Wrangler, which should launch in the next few months.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Goodbye Google Reader, it's been real

By now, you've probably seen the announcement that Google Reader is being retired effective July 1st, 2013. Over the last 7 or 8 years, it's by far been my most used web tool, and increasingly was the back-end for a couple of apps on iOS both on my iPhone and iPad.

Quite a few people dismissed Google reader a while ago, and were not phased by this announcement (even saw a few "People still use Google Reader?" around the internet). Many preferring to load up Twitter or some other source with content to page through and draw links from, allowing the good stuff to bubble up to the surface. I've never gotten into this method of consumption - I only follow 250 accounts on Twitter at any given time and mostly individuals, not many companies, or RSS type feeds from blogs. I find that Twitter has sub-par tools for managing too much noise, and isn't really interested in developing them at all.

I still prefer subscribing to a lot of things, organizing and ordering them in a way that allows me to skip the heavy traffic sites when I don't have time while still seeing all content from my friends and other lower frequency blogs that matter to me. Reader was always really good for this once you had it optimally set up.

So to say that Google Reader shutting down was a bit of a fork in the cog of my information consumption is an understatement.

No Surprises
It also wasn't (or shouldn't have been) that big of a surprise to the loyal users of the service. Back in 2011, Google removed all the social features built into Reader (and used by a small but hardcore base of people) and forced everyone to share with Google+ as the main sharing mechanism. I'd say 10 out of the 40 or so people I interacted with on the old Reader social platform moved over to G+, the rest stopped using it at that time. People were mad. Google Reader was a great product back then and it was consistently iterative. Now a clunky redesign and a complete neutering of its features didn't bode well for the service.

But some of us continued to use it. I explored alternatives - NewsBlur looked promising but not many people went there and I was after a better social experience. It also cost money, and Google Reader didn't have any implicit costs to use. It's hard to compete with that anywhere, especially when the product is so dominant. There were not many other options that allowed you to use a web interface which doubled as a back end to other applications. So with Google Reader I continued despite the annoyances.

I got into Google+ sharing as much as could be (and for those of my non-reader friends that follow me there, I often have them tell me that I'm the only one that posts anything in their feed.) and I'm still a moderately heavy user of the service. At the same time this was going on, a contingent of people I used to follow on Friendfeed made their way over to G+ and started using it as a replacement or compliment. Between these two crowds, I have a small but active group that I follow there.

What do we do now?
So what to do in a post Google Reader world? There are several competitors being built from the ground up. They all got slammed the other day in the wake of the announcement. Newsblur is still trying to get back on its feet, and The Old Reader and Feedly are spotty as they get hit with several times their normal load. Several other services have been announced including a promising one from iOS developer David Smith called Feed Wrangler, and there will probably be a few others that come into this space now that they barrier to entry has been removed.

Personally, I took the plunge with Fever, a self hosted solution that is pretty solid. More on that in a future post.