NetNewsWire 4.0, the Mac RSS reader, was released just the other day. As someone who was on the NetNewsWire 2.0–3.2 beta team and who has spent at least half an hour and more likely at least one and a half hour in NetNewsWire every day since 2004, I am interested in this. Here is the problem with what’s been going on.
NetNewsWire was originally made and maintained solely by Brent Simmons, although he was able to make it work only by relying on his wife Sheila handling support duties – they both make up Ranchero Software. NetNewsWire was huge both in terms of the app’s capability, feature roster and user base, and Brent on several occasions made large upgrades entirely free.
With Brent at the helm, features were added, considered, reconsidered, reimplemented, cut and wildly discussed. None of it happened in isolation. Brent may not have agreed with all of us on the beta list all the time, but he at least picked our brains. More than once, someone had a huge database which made a redesign of some corner of the app necessary. More than once, ideas were conceived, kicked around and implemented. (Brent and NNW was for a time in the hands of NewsGator, but it didn’t change how the software was developed beyond supporting their sync service such as it for a period existed. This tells me it’s more about the individual.)
NetNewsWire 4 started in Brent’s hands as NetNewsWire Lite. It’s not surprising, considering the organic way things grew in comparison with big advancements coming into being with every OS X version closer to the platform’s birth (and mostly free from the focus to have to poorly reimplement iPad features or metaphors), that the foundation of NNW or the interplay between so many features would eventually gunk up and could use a rethinking. NetNewsWire 3 was one, and this was to be the next. As NNW Lite was mostly finished, NNW was bought by Black Pixel in 2011.
After a long period of silence, they brought out the NetNewsWire 4.0 beta, which was a mildly souped up version of NetNewsWire Lite. After a bit of culture shock seeing so many features I depended on cut outright, I decided to brave it out and see where they’d take it. The place they’d take it was a bunch more betas. One beta was literally released to just extend an expiration timer.
And now, with the final release, they fixed a bunch of bugs that had been shockingly prevalent (like how the article view would stop redrawing except for during scrolling, or how changing from an article to a tab would sometimes not redraw, or how it would just stop reacting much to mouse click events at all) and added Sync. I empathize with them because they’d been working on a sync solution with iCloud Core Data which they just couldn’t get to work well enough and then switched to trying to do Google Reader sync before that product was mothballed to the Internet’s unilateral and universal uproar. Reimplementing sync was, I dare say, 40-60% of all the work Brent ever spent on NetNewsWire. It is time-consuming, hard to get right and has tons of error cases. And it probably requires a good long beta period to settle in.
So what’s my point? Is my point that Black Pixel has been mishandling NetNewsWire? A little bit. Have they been rude to me personally? No, of course not. Their support has been kind and service-oriented. I know I can’t expect the NetNewsWire beta discussion list to be continued by osmosis. NetNewsWire has to be produced by Black Pixel in the process they use and the way they work. Of course they had an internal beta for NNW Sync. But it is nuts to have a public beta process, let it languish terribly for months on end and then not even use it to test out the sync feature but just ship it directly into production. And I don’t expect to be treated like a sage old man just because I was part of a mailing list once. But now I feel like the grumpy man yelling at the TV. I feel like the curmudgeon whining about how things were better in the old days. I don’t want to be that guy, or feel like him.
But I also don’t want one of the five most important apps in my life to fade into something dumbed down. One interpretation of this post’s title is of course “who is NetNewsWire 4, who stands behind NetNewsWire?”. It used to be Brent and Sheila. It now is Black Pixel. Black Pixel has a more Apple-like approach and it’s not the way they work to think aloud, to eagerly solicit feedback, to herd cats and cat-like ideas of what should be for dinner tonight. I can deal with all of this. But I have to see progress.
Because the answer to “who is NetNewsWire for?” used to be “people who want to use an RSS reader that’s stable, full featured, regularly updated and fast to use”. And that’s not the case any longer. For example, NetNewsWire 4.1 could just be the reimplementation of the back/forward buttons for article item selection, such that if I went to an item and then went to another item and since the first one now was marked as read, I have to hunt to find my way back to it, I could just press the back button, and I would happily buy two extra licenses just for giving me some of the sophistication back.
With any luck, this is the end of a painful first implementation of a solid platform, and new features and updates will come more swiftly now. I hope so. I know that with the exception of syncing, which I don’t use, this is the point which I thought they’d have to get to before it was really theirs, and I’m willing to start fresh here and see what they’re up to. But if the next four years are like the previous four years, count me out.