I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

All Or Nothing

A number of readers have asked me to clarify my tweet yesterday about NetNewsWire being “dead” to me, despite the recent 4.0 Mac beta. I have some complaints about the app itself, but they’re mostly irrelevant personal preferences. My statement was based on two other major concerns.

First, it’s simply too late. In three days, Google Reader will shut down and there will be no NetNewsWire client that syncs. The new Mac app is in an early beta, the new sync service is still in progress, and Black Pixel says they’re “revisiting the designs” for the iPhone and iPad clients, so we’re probably in for a pretty long wait for all three apps. This is a massive undertaking that appears to still be in its early stages. In the meantime, many NetNewsWire users — myself included — will switch to other apps, change our habits, and start building an affinity for something else.

That’s why I said it was “dead” to me: it will stop working for my purposes on Monday, it will be a long time before I can use it again, and when (if) that time comes, it may not be what I want to use.

My second concern is strategic, and it applies beyond just NetNewsWire.

In the wake of Google Reader’s demise, we now have many feed-sync services with public APIs, all of which are accumulating users and customers, including Feedly, Feedbin, FeedHQ, Feed Wrangler, Fever, NewsBlur, The Old Reader, BazQux, and probably one or two more that launched while I was writing this sentence and somehow already got added to Mr. Reader.

If your primary focus is traditional feed-reading (i.e. excluding browsing-centric, social-hybrid apps such as Flipboard), I believe launching a proprietary feed-sync solution in today’s environment is a huge strategic error.

A major strength of this multi-sync-service environment, as long as at least a couple of the services have widespread client support (which has already happened), is that users can pick and choose their favorite apps on different platforms. Google Reader gave us the same benefit: I was happily using NetNewsWire on Mac and Reeder on iOS for years, because I preferred NetNewsWire over Reeder on Mac and vice versa on iOS.

With multiple clients supporting the new sync services, we’ll retain most of the same luxury.

But if your app only syncs to your own service and nobody else’s, you’ve put up a massive barrier: for someone who likes feed-reading on multiple platforms, to switch to you, they’ll need to like your respective clients better than their existing choices on every platform they use.

It’s all or nothing. And the chance that someone will decide that you’re worth the “all” is far lower than the chance that they’d switch to just one of your apps that they like.

From Black Pixel’s vague public statements on sync, it appears likely that NetNewsWire will only sync with its own service.1 If so, they’re setting extremely high barriers: not only will customers face the all-or-nothing decision, but Black Pixel will need to ship three complete apps before any of them are very useful to people with all three devices. It’s extremely ambitious — probably too ambitious. If that’s their plan, I hope they’ll reconsider.

They’re not the only ones at risk of an overly ambitious strategy: many new services trying to replace Google Reader are taking the same gamble.

In the absence of major exclusive features or strong social lock-in, if you make a feed reader today, it better support multiple sync services. Conversely, if you’re making a service, it better have an API for third-party clients.

These strategies don’t apply in every market, of course. But the feed-reader market, with so many geeks and power users, is much more likely to own multiple devices, want native clients on each of them, and require syncing. Feed readers all do pretty much the same things and differentiate primarily on interface choices, so potential lock-in effects are minimal and the market appreciates client choice.

The post-Google-Reader market is already established as a multi-service environment, so the chances of any one company locking in another majority are (thankfully) low. If you try, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

  1. Black Pixel declined to comment on their sync plans for this post. ↩︎