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๐Ÿ”  ๐Ÿ’€  ๐Ÿ“ธ  ๐Ÿ˜ญ  ๐Ÿ•ณ๏ธ  ๐Ÿค   ๐ŸŽฌ  ๐Ÿฅ” posts about RSS

The Future of RSS is Textcasting

RSS widescreen.jpeg

Earlier this week, Dave Winer (the inventor of RSS and lots of other notable software, and one of the earliest bloggers) made a podcast for me. He posted it publicly, so it wasn’t sealed like a letter, but it was addressed to me and responding to something I wrote on Threads. I don’t think I’ve ever been the personal addressee of a podcast before: like an @-reply, but in audio.

For some reason, it reminded me of the poet Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto:

[Personism] was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it.

But this is a digression. The ideas Dave is talking about in this podcast are serious (even if he is laughing a lot), and he spells them out in text at a site called Here’s the philosophy:

  • The goal is interop between social media apps and the features writers need.
  • What we’re doing: Moving documents between networked apps. We need a set of common features in order for it to work.
  • The features are motivated by the needs of writers. Not by programmers or social media company execs.

It’s a proposal to build, using technologies we already have and understand very well, a very simple social media protocol that is completely agnostic about what editor you use to write your posts and what viewer you choose to read it. Writer/authors would have more control over styling, links, media enclosures, etc., and readers would have more control over how and where they consume it. It’s decentralized social media, but without the need to peer through ActivityPub or anybody else’s API and squeeze our toothpaste through its tubes.

Dave asked me to respond to his podcast, and while I thought about making an audio response, a blog post is more my metier.

If this is going to work, I think there are at least four problems we’d have to solve:

  • Everyday users need a default writer and reader, preferably in the same place. It would be wonderful to be able to bring your own tools to bear and plug into the endpoints and have it just work. But nobody should need to fish around for that stuff. The defaults should be just opinionated enough (for instance, I like the Mastodon client Ivory, built on the ashes of TweetBot) that people feel like they’re getting a slick, finished UI and UX experience. That’s why people are gravitating to Threads: Meta knows how to put one together. But that’s not rebuilding the electrical grid from scratch. We know how to do that too.
  • We need user and content discovery. We have to be able to find each other. And that’s what a lot of the heavy lifting of these other platforms is devoted to: to find people and things you didn’t know you were looking for. Again, this feels like a solvable problem.
  • We need metrics. Most writers work for publishers, and publishers want to know whether their content is reaching people. It’s tempting to load this up with a lot of cruft, but impressions, clicks, reposts, quote posts, etc. is doable without a ton of advertising nonsense. Social media companies figured this out, but bloggers did too, a lot earlier.
  • We need moderation. A wide-open social network becomes a highly abusive social network fast in 2023. And nobody who isn’t a Nazi wants to hang out at a Nazi bar. So we need tools to block and flag and maybe even ban people who use the platform to spam each other, impersonate real people, and abuse other people on the platform. In the now-seminal “Welcome to Hell, Elon,” Nilay Patel correctly identified content moderation as Twitter’s actual product: it’s what Twitter-the-company added to Twitter-the-protocol. We don’t necessarily need a Twitter-sized overhead, or a complex system of federated moderators, but it’s going to be a problem, so we’d need tools to address it.

But in terms of philosophy and vision, I’m all for it. RSS remains incredibly vital to what I do, and its potential as both a reading AND a writing platform remains untapped. You can write using your own tool and broadcast it everywhere. And Dave’s right: this worked for podcasts (the phrase “anywhere you get your podcasts!” is a great advertisement for interoperability breaking any single platform’s dominance), it worked for blogs, and it can work for this strange multimodal thing we’ve created called social media. It worked for the world wide web! And I will be ride or die for the open web until my life comes to an end.

Now we just need to work together to make it happen. And I confess: my tools are limited here. I can’t (really) code, I can’t (really) design, I can’t build a moderation feature. I can evangelize, I can strategize, and I can write. But I can do those things (in all modesty) very, very well.

So let’s do this thing. Why not? Twitter is dying, and Facebook is fading. None of the replacements have eaten their lunch yet. Why not make a swing for the open web? Why not try?

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The making of Digg Reader

Writing for Wired, Matt Homan Mat Honan on Betaworks’ race to build a replacement for Google Reader in just 90 days. If you are interested in a 35,000-ft view on how Web-based software is built, read this.

McLaughlin saw a blog post in the Fall of 2012 speculating that Google Reader, choked of resources, was shutting down. He sent a teasing note to a friend at Google offering to “take it off their hands.” To his surprise, he got a serious reply. Google, his friend replied, had concluded that it couldn’t sell the name, user data, or code base (which would only run on their servers) and so there was nothing to actually buy.

The following February, McLaughlin, now full-time at Digg, bumped into this same pal at a TED conference. The friend warned him to act fast if he really did want to develop a Reader. “He said ‘I’m not telling you anything, but we’re not going to keep this thing around forever and maybe you want to have something ready by the end of the year.”

But instead of year’s end Google announced plans to shutter Google Reader on July 1. That same night, Digg put up a blog post announcing that it was going to build a replacement. The Internet went crazy.

Loved seeing ye olde represented in the Digg Reader mockups, and I’m looking forward to checking out the service when it launches.

RIP Google Reader

You may have heard by now that Google is shutting down Google Reader, their RSS reading service. It’ll be gone by July 4. Fortunately you can export your subscriptions and use another service…here are some suggestions from Matt Haughey and Gizmodo. Or you can wait for Digg’s reader.

If you want to forego RSS readers altogether but still want to keep up with without having to visit the site regularly, try following on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr.

Google Reader hacks

After using Newsfire for many years, I recently switched to Google Reader for reading RSS feeds. I’m not sold on Reader yet, but I’m going to give it a solid chance. After poking around online and leaning on my Twitter pals (thanks!), I’ve come up with a system that seems to work for me on OS X, at least for extensive testing purposes.

1. Download Fluid. Fluid creates standalone desktop apps out of web pages. After installing, paste in Google Reader’s URL, name the app “Google Reader”, and use a pretty icon (or two). Launch your new app…voila, Google Reader as a standalone app.

2. Install the Helvetireader theme for Google Reader. To do this, go to the Scripts menu in your Google Reader Fluid app (it’s the scroll graphic to the left of the Window menu) and select “New UserScript”. Name your script “helvetireader”. At the prompt, select “Override” and then close that window. From the Script menu, select “Open Userscripts Folder”…this will open the ~/Library/Application Support/Fluid/SSB/Google Reader/Userscripts folder in the Finder. Download the Helvetireader UserScript from the web site and save it over the file of the same name in that Userscripts folder. Go back to the GR Fluid app and select “Reload All Userscripts” from the scripts menu. You should be seeing something that looks like this.

3. Make Google Reader your default RSS reader. In Safari, go to Preferences / RSS / Default RSS Reader, choose “Select…” and find the GR Fluid app in your Applications folder. In Firefox, go to Preferences / Applications, scroll down to Web Feed, choose “Use other…” and find the GR Fluid app in your Applications folder. Now clicking on RSS icons and feeds in these browsers will open an “add this feed” page in the GR Fluid app.

If you don’t want to go the Fluid route, you can also use Reader Notifier to let you set Google Reader as your default RSS reader in Safari.

Seeking RSS sponsors

Week-long exclusive sponsorships of’s RSS feed are available through the end of March.

In sponsoring the feed, you get the chance to promote your company or product in a short post that will appear in the feed. A sponsor “thank you” note will also be posted to the front page of the site. Your message will reach an estimated 110,000+ RSS subscribers.

If you’re interested, check out the sponsorship page for details and get in touch. Thanks!

Finding good stuff on the web

Learn how designer Michael Surtees finds good stuff on the web without having to use an RSS reader.

Seeking RSS feed sponsors

Hear ye! I’m trying something new on Sponsorships of’s RSS feed are now available on a weekly basis. Sponsorships are exclusive and begin next week. If you’re interested, check out the sponsorship page for details and get in touch.

P.S. The feed sponsorship idea was borrowed from John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. I’d urge you to head on over to check out his sponsorship opportunities, but the DF feed is fully booked through the end of the year. (!!)

P.S.2. Advertising on the site proper continues to be handled expertly by The Deck. If you’d like to advertise on the site, read up on your options there.

Contents shifting

I’m moving some things around on the backend of the site so those of you reading in RSS may have noticed some duplicate items. Sorry about that…it’s a one time occurance and was mostly unavoidable.

As of today, David Watanabe’s excellent NewsFire

As of today, David Watanabe’s excellent NewsFire RSS reader for OS X is completely free. I love NewsFire.

Feed reading

Warning, RSSoterica and sausage-making to follow. Matt Wood has a post up on 43Folders about how he groups his RSS feeds in Google Reader for easier reading. I use pretty much the same system as Matt, but with a few more folders. I have several folders for reading long-form blogs:

Food and Drink

Always, Often, and Sometimes are self-explanatory. The Pending folder is for blogs that I’m trying out, Frippery is stuff that is to be read during non-work hours (ha!), and the Infoglut folder contains a bunch of blogs that have a low signal-to-noise ratio and are too high volume to keep up with unless everything else is read (any multi-author pro blogs that I read (not many) are in here). For organizing non-long-form blogs, I use these folders:


Links contains link blogs, Yummy has a bunch of stuff from, Photos are photoblogs, and Tumble contains tumblelogs, FFFFOUND!, and other Randomly Curated Other People’s Images White Background Sites. And then for news, I have an NY Times folder, a Sci/Tech News folder, and a Keywords folder for Google News keyword searches.

All this folder business might seem overcomplicated, but I find that grouping feeds by mode helps greatly. And by mode, I mean when I’m reading link blogs, that’s a different style than reading/skimming long-form blogs in the Always folder. Posts from link blogs usually take a few seconds to read/evaluate/discard while the Always folder posts take longer. If they were all lumped together, I couldn’t get through them as quickly and thoroughly as I can separately. A juggling analogy will help โ€” Wait! Don’t leave, I’m almost done! โ€” it’s easier to juggle balls or clubs or knives than it is to juggle balls, knives, and clubs at the same time…same thing with different kinds of blog posts.

Quick iPhone review

- I’m kind of amazed that this thing lives up to the expectations I had for it. It’s an amazing device.

- To read RSS, just put a feed address into Safari and Apple redirects it through their iPhone feed reader. But it’s very much of an a la carte thing, one feed at a time. What’s needed is a proper newsreader with its own icon on home screen. Workarounds for now: Google Reader looks nice or you could make a collective feed that combines all the feeds you want to read on your iPhone and use that with the iPhone feed reader (Meg’s idea).

- I skipped the index finger and am right into the two thumb typing. With the software correction, it’s surprisingly easy. Or maybe I just have small lady thumbs.

- After fiddling with it for an hour, I know how to work the iPhone better than the Nokia I had for the past 2 years, even though the Nokia has far fewer capabilities.

- I could use the Google Maps app forever.

- When I go back to using my Macbook Pro, I want to fling stuff around the screen like on the iPhone. It’s an addictive way to interface with information.

- Finding Nemo looked really nice on the widescreen display.

- You can pinch and expand with two thumbs instead of your thumb and index finger.

- The camera is not what you would call great, but it’s as good as my old phone’s, which is about all I want out of it. The lack of video is a bit of a bummer.

- I Twittered from on line at the AT&T store that the line was moving slowly because they were doing in-store credit checks and contract sign-ups, contrary to what everyone had been told by Apple beforehand. That was not the case. They were just being super careful with everything…each phone and the bag that it went into had a bar code on it and they were scanning everything and running phones from the back of the store one at a time. The staff was helpful and courteous and it was a very smooth transaction, all things considered. I was on line for 2 hours before the store opened and then another 2 hours waiting to get into the store.

- The alert options (ringtones, vibrate options, messaging alerts, etc.) aren’t as fine-grained as I would like, but they’ll do for now.

- I have not tried the internet stuff on anything but my home WiFi network, so I don’t know about the EDGE network speed. Will try it out and about later.

- The Google Maps display shows the subway stops but not the full system map. Workaround: stick a JPG of the subway map in your iPhoto library and sync it up to the iPhone. Voila, zoomable, dragable NYC subway map.

- Wasn’t it only a year or two ago that everyone was oohing and aahing over Jeff Han’s touchscreen demos? And now there’s a mass-produced device that does similar stuff that fits it your pocket. We’re living in the future, folks…the iPhone is the hovercar we’ve all been waiting for.


- The iPhone is the first iPod with a speaker. Which means that in addition to using it as a speakerphone, you can listen to music, podcasts, YouTube videos, and movies without earphones. Which might seem a bit “eh”, but won’t once you have 15 people gathered around watching and listening to that funny bit from last night’s Colbert Report. You know, the Social.

- I’m getting my mail right off my server with IMAP, so when it gets to the phone, it hasn’t gone through’s junk filters…which basically means that mail on the iPhone is useless for me. In the near future, I’m going to set things up to route through GMail prior to the phone to near-eliminate the spam.

- Tried the EDGE network while I was out and about. Seemed pretty speedy to me, not noticeably slower than my WiFi at home…which may say more about Time Warner’s cable modem speeds than EDGE.

- BTW, all of these first impressions are just that. You can’t judge a device or an interface without using it day to day for awhile. I’m curious to see how I and others are still liking the phone in two weeks.

- Everytime I connect the iPhone to my computer, Aperture launches. Do not want.

Made some long overdue changes to the

Made some long overdue changes to the sidebar on the front page, including an even longer overdue update of the “sites I’ve enjoyed recently”. I used to use that list for my daily browse but it fell into decay when I started reading sites in RSS. Now the list is a random sampling of sites from the current reading list in my newsreader. If things look a little weird, you may need to refresh the stylesheet (do a Shift-reload on the home page).

Ways in which working on is like gardening

- Pruning the list of RSS feeds I follow.
- Digging.
- Writing about hoes.
- Keeping deer out of the

- Growing my traffic.
- Worrying about bees.
- (Com)posting links?
- Weeding out spam from comment threads.
- ^s.
- There’s never enough thyme.
- Wondering about the weather.

New Yorker site redesigned

The New Yorker redesign just went live. Not sure if I like it yet, but I don’t not like it. Some quick notes after 15 minutes of kicking the tires, starting with the ugly and proceeding from there:

  • Only some of the old article URLs seem to work, which majorly sucks. This one from 2002 doesn’t work and neither does this one from late 2005. This David Sedaris piece from 9/2006 does. has links to the New Yorker going back to mid-2001…I’d be more than happy to supply them so some proper rewrite rules can be constructed. I’d say that more than 70% of the 200+ links from to the New Yorker site are dead…to say nothing of all the links in Google, Yahoo, and 5 million other blogs. Not good.
  • The full text of at least one article (Stacy Schiff’s article on Wikipedia) has been pulled from the site and has been replaced by an abstract of the article and the following notice:
    The New Yorker’s archives are not yet fully available online. The full text of all articles published before May, 2006, can be found in “The Complete New Yorker,” which is available for purchase on DVD and hard drive.
    Not sure if this is the only case or if the all longer articles from before a certain date have been pulled offline. This also is not good.
  • They still default to splitting up their article into multiple pages, but luckily you can hack the URL by appending “?currentPage=all” to get the whole article on one page, like so. Would be nice if that functionality was exposed.
  • The first thing I looked for was the table of contents for the most recent issue because that’s, by far, the page I most use on the site (it’s the defacto “what’s new” page). Took me about a minute to find the link…it’s hidden in small text on the right-hand side of the site.
  • There are several RSS options, but there’s no RSS autodiscovery going on. That’s an easy fix. The main feed validates but with a few warnings. The bigger problem is that the feed only shows the last 10 items, which isn’t even enough to cover an entire new issue’s worth of stories and online-only extras.
  • A New Yorker timeline. Is this new?
  • Listing of blogs by New Yorker contributors, including Gladwell, SFJ, and Alex Ross.
  • Some odd spacing issues and other tiny bugs here and there. The default font size and line spacing make the articles a little hard to read…just a bit more line spacing would be great. And maybe default to the medium size font instead of the small. A little rough around the edges is all.
  • The front page doesn’t validate as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. But the errors are pretty minor…
    instead of
    , not using the proper entity for the ampersand, uppercase anchor tags and the like.
  • All articles include the stardard suite of article tools: change the font size, print, email to a friend, and links to Digg,, & Reddit. Each article is also accompanied by a list of keywords which function more or less like tags.
  • Overall, the look of the site is nice and clean with ample white space where you need it. The site seems well thought out, all in all. A definite improvement over the old site.

Thanks to Neil for the heads up on the new site.

Some RSS and remaindered links changes

As promised, I’ve made some long overdue changes to the RSS feeds and the remaindered links. I’ve combined the two feeds โ€” previously one contained main posts, movie posts, and book posts and the other contained the so-called remaindered links โ€” into one feed, located here:

If you’re already subscribed to the main feed, you shouldn’t have to change a thing. If you’re subscribed to the remaindered feed, your newsreader (if it’s smart enough) should automatically and permanently redirect you to the new feed. If not, just change the subscription to point at the above feed. If you’re subscribed to both, unsubscribe from the remaindered feed. The new combined feed will mirror the front page of the site…whatever appears there will appear in the feed.

Second thing: the remaindered links are dead. Long live the remaindered links. Oh, they’re still here on the site, but it’s been a long time since they were just links…they’re more like mini posts with no titles โ€” some of them are actually longer than the non-mini posts. The distinction made sense when they were included in the sidebar on the front page, but not anymore. Functionally that means no separate RSS feed, no separate archives, and no separate index page…they’re all gone (or will be soon). All the remaindered links posts are still available, but they’re in the main monthly archives now. The point is, you don’t need to worry about any of this. Just subscribe to the above feed or come to the front page each day and you’ll get everything that’s new on everyday. Simple.

Things should have worked this way for, oh, the past two years, but I just never got around to changing it. What finally kicked my butt into action were two things that happened in the past two weeks. I had coffee with Cory Doctorow last weekend. He asked how things were going with and remarked that I’m not posting nearly as much as I used to. I replied that I had been posting as much as ever, but got the feeling that Cory was only subscribed to the main RSS feed, which only accounted for about 15-20% of my total effort on the site. I wondered how many other people out there were only subscribed to the main feed and started to, oh, I guess “fret” is the right word.

Fret turned to panic when I checked my server logs. Bloglines sends along how many people are subscribed to an RSS feed in the user-agent string that’s deposited in the referer logs on the server, like so:

Bloglines/3.1 (; 200 subscribers)

When I compared the number of subscribers to the main feed to the number subscribing to the remaindered feed, the main feed number was nearly 3 times higher. Even worse is when I looked at my server logs for the feeds (I stopped looking at my stats months ago)…visits to the main feed are outpacing visits to the remaindered feed 5:1. Which means that somewhere between 75-85% of the people who are reading via RSS aren’t even getting most of what’s on the site! Which was dumb, dumb, dumb of me to let happen for all these months and why I’ve now corrected the situation. Interestingly, the stats from Rojo indicate the opposite situation…way more people are subscribed to the remaindered links feed than the main feed. Weird. (Another RSS stats tidbit: I’ve served up 58 gigabytes of RSS so far this month. That’s crazy!)

As always, your bug reports, questions, and concerns are appreciated and may be directed to [email protected].

Ben Brown has a built a little

Ben Brown has a built a little site that takes the content from’s RSS feeds and adds the ability to comment on them. “Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Jason does not allow readers to leave comments. Kottke Komments contains the same stuff as, but with comments turned on!” Here’s more from Ben on the why/how. “The site […] is already built to parse, combine, and remix multiple sources of content. BoingBoingBlurbs, anyone?”

Small site matter

Sorry to bug you about this, but I moved the RSS feeds for and the remaindered links. I’m using redirects so you shouldn’t even notice anything. That is, your feedreader should be directed to the new files automagically and if you’re reading this message in a newsreader, it has worked. But if you are having problems with the new files, send me an email and I’ll get the technical team (ahem) on it right away.

New files: RSS, remaindered links RSS.

NewsFire is now a Universal Binary. I

NewsFire is now a Universal Binary. I believe it’s the first newsreader to make the switch.

In the future, we’ll be sitting on

In the future, we’ll be sitting on the toilet, reading blog posts printed on toilet paper with RSStroom Reader.

An excellent John Gruber piece on the

An excellent John Gruber piece on the life cycle of the independent Mac developer, using for an example Brent and Sheila Simmons, whose company Ranchero was recently sold to NewsGator.

Well, lookie lookie. If you take a

Well, lookie lookie. If you take a peek at the bottom of the Apple movie trailers page, they’ve added a link to an RSS file of the newest movie trailers. O’ happy day. (thx John)

Update: Dave says: “I was hoping to see permalinks to a reviews page for the movie, and an enclosure containing the trailer itself.” Me too, but baby steps, I guess.

QuotationsBook offers its quotations and search results

QuotationsBook offers its quotations and search results via RSS. If someone were to write a plug-in for Movable Type for this, you could display related quotations alongside blog posts using tags (e.g. tag an entry with “friends” and you get a quotation about friends). Cool.

In addition to, Verisign’s acquisition

In addition to, Verisign’s acquisition of Moreover was also announced this week. Two of the companies founders, Nick Denton and David Galbraith, have thoughts. Nick reveals that Moreover almost bought Pyra once upon a time, a little tidbit I didn’t reveal in my piece on Moreover from a couple years ago.

Google Reader is Google’s RSS/Atom reader.

Google Reader is Google’s RSS/Atom reader.

AIGA Design Conference podcasts

The AIGA has podcasts and presentation materials up for some of the speakers from the Design Conference (my full coverage here). Several of the main stage speeches are up, as well as backstage interviews with some of the participants. In particular, I would recommend:

  • Audio of the main stage presentation and interview with Juan Enriquez.
  • Audio of the main stage presentation by Bill Strickland on The Design of Leadership.
  • Audio of the main stage presentation by Milton Glaser and Nicholas Negroponte.
  • Audio of the main stage presentation by Murray Moss, although I’m not sure how well this one would work if you listened to it without the slides.
  • The PDF of Stefan Sagmeister’s presentation doesn’t make too much sense without the audio, but the last 50 or so slides are worth checking out for the design candy.

These aren’t just for designers; they’re perfectly fine for non-designers as well. Here’s the RSS file with all the resources…it should work well with your favorite podcasting software or newsreader. It’s great that the AIGA is making these presentations freely available…you’re getting a lot of the conference for free here. If I remember correctly, not even O’Reilly offers the presentations or podcasts for download after their events like Etech.

Update: Wrong again! IT Conversations has several podcasts from the last Etech conference. (thx tim)

Moreover to be purchased by “much larger

Moreover to be purchased by “much larger multi-national company”. I worked at Moreover as a web designer for 10 months back in 2000-1.

When dealing with information sent to them

When dealing with information sent to them on mobile devices like the Blackberry, people tend to not read anything that closely and seem to take the information less seriously. Like Matt and Foe, I’ve noticed this…but with blogs and (especially) newsreaders. Having 1000s of unread items to deal with per day would tend to diminish the value of individual blog posts, n’est pas? I wonder if this is partially what Gladwell is getting at with his upcoming NYer festival talk, The American Obsession with Precociousness, Learning quickly versus learning well

GoogleOS? YahooOS? MozillaOS? WebOS?

Before we get going, here are some alternate titles for this post, just to give you an idea of what I’m trying to get at before I actually, you know, get at it:

  • You’re probably wondering why Yahoo bought Konfabulator
  • An update on Google Browser, GooOS and Google Desktop
  • A platform that everyone can stand on and why Apple, Microsoft, and, yes, even Google will have to change their ways to be a part of it
  • The next killer app: desktop Web servers
  • Does the Mozilla Foundation have the vision to make Firefox the most important piece of software of this decade?
  • Web 3.0
  • Finally, the end of Microsoft’s operating system dominance

Now that your hyperbole meter has pegged a few times, hopefully the rest of this will seem tame in comparison. (And apologies for the length…I got rolling and, oops, 2500 words. But many of them are small so…)

Way back in October 2004, this idea of how the Web as a platform might play out popped into my head, and I’ve been trying to motivate myself into writing it down ever since. Two recent events, Yahoo’s purchase of Konfabulator and Google’s release of a new beta version of Google Desktop have finally spurred me into action. But back to October. At the Web 2.0 conference, Stewart pulled me aside and said something like, “I think I know what Google is doing with Google Browser.” From a subsequent post on his site:

I’ve had this post about Adam Bosworth, Alchemy and the Google browser sitting around for months now and it is driving me crazy, because I want all the credit for guessing this before it happens. So, for the record, if Google is making a browser, and if it is going to be successful, it will be because there is a sophisticated local caching framework included, and Google will provide the reference apps (replying to emails on Gmail or posting messages to Google groups while on the plane).

At the time, Adam Bosworth had been recently hired by Google for purposes unknown. In a blog post several months before he was hired, Bosworth mused about a “new browser”:

In this entry, I’m going to discuss how I imagine a mobilized or web services browser handles changes and service requests when it isn’t connected. This is really where the peddle hits the metal. If you just read data and never ever alter it or invoke related services (such as approving an expense report or booking a restaurant) then perhaps you might not need a new browser. Perhaps just caching pages offline would be sufficient if one added some metadata about what to cache. Jean Paoli has pointed out to me that this would be even more likely if rather than authoring your site using HTML, you authored it as XML “pages” laid out by the included XSLT stylesheets used to render it because then you could even use the browser to sort/filter the information offline. A very long time ago when I was still at Microsoft (1997) we built such a demo using XSLT and tricky use of Javascript to let the user do local client side sorting and filtering. But if you start actually trying to update trip reports, approve requests, reserve rooms, buy stocks, and so on, then you have Forms of some sort, running offline, at least some of the time, and code has to handle the inputs to the “Forms” and you have to think through how they are handled.

A couple weeks later, Google introduced the first iteration of their Desktop Search. To me, the least interesting thing about GDS was the search mechanism. Google finally had an application that installed on the desktop and, even better, it was a little Web server that could insert data from your local machine into pages you were browsing on That was a new experience: using a plain old Web browser to run applications locally and on the Web at the same time.

So this is my best guess as to how an “operating system” based on the Web (which I will refer to as “WebOS”) will work. There are three main parts to the system:

  • The Web browser (along with other browser-ish applications like Konfabulator) becomes the primary application interface through which the user views content, performs services, and manages data on their local machine and on the Web, often without even knowing the difference. Something like Firefox, Safari, or IE…ideally browser agnostic.
  • Web applications of the sort we’re all familiar with: Gmail, Flickr, and Bloglines, as well as other applications that are making the Web an ever richer environment for getting stuff done. (And ideally all Ajaxed up to provide an experience closer to that of traditional desktop apps.)
  • A local Web server to handle the data delivery and content display from the local machine to the browser. This local server will likely be highly optimized for its task, but would be capable of running locally installed Web applications (e.g. a local copy of Gmail and all its associated data).

That’s it. Aside from the browser and the Web server, applications will be written for the WebOS and won’t be specific to Windows, OS X, or Linux. This is also completely feasible, I think, for organizations like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, or the Mozilla Foundation to make happen (more on this below).

Compared to “standalone” Web apps and desktop apps, applications developed for this hypothetical platform have some powerful advantages. Because they run in a Web browser, these applications are cross platform (assuming that whoever develops such a system develops the local Web server part of it for Windows, OS X, Linux, your mobile phone, etc.), just like Web apps such as Gmail, Basecamp, and You don’t need to be on a specific machine with a specific OS…you just need a browser + local Web server to access your favorite data and apps.

For application developers, the main advantage is that instead of writing two or more programs for multiple platforms (one for the Web, one for Windows, etc.), they can write one app that will run on any machine with the WebOS using the same code base. Bloglines and NetNewsWire both do about the same thing and have radically different codebases (Bloglines uses HTML/JavaScript + some sort of backend programming/scripting language while NNW is a Cocoa app only for OS X), but a version of Bloglines developed for the above platform could utilize a single codebase.

You also get the advantages of locally run applications. You can use them when you’re not connected to the Internet. There could be an icon in the Dock that fires up Gmail in your favorite browser. For applications using larger files like images, video, and audio, those files could be stored and manipulated locally instead of waiting for transfer over the Internet.

There are also disadvantages to WebOS applications, not the least of which[1] is that HTTP+JavaScript+XHTML+CSS+Flash is not as robust in providing functionality and user interaction as true desktop applications written in Cocoa or Visual Basic. But as Paul Graham points out, Web applications may be good enough[2]:

One thing that might deter you from writing Web-based applications is the lameness of Web pages as a UI. That is a problem, I admit. There were a few things we would have really liked to add to HTML and HTTP. What matters, though, is that Web pages are just good enough.

Web pages weren’t designed to be a UI for applications, but they’re just good enough. And for a significant number of users, software that you can use from any browser will be enough of a win in itself to outweigh any awkwardness in the UI. Maybe you can’t write the best-looking spreadsheet using HTML, but you can write a spreadsheet that several people can use simultaneously from different locations without special client software, or that can incorporate live data feeds, or that can page you when certain conditions are triggered. More importantly, you can write new kinds of applications that don’t even have names yet.

And how about these new kinds of applications? Here’s how I would envision a few apps working on the WebOS:

  • Gmail. While online, you read your mail at, but it also caches your mail locally so when you disconnect, you can still read it. Then when you connect again, it sends any replies you wrote offline, just like or Outlook does. Many people already use Gmail (or Yahoo Mail) as their only email client…imagine if it worked offline as well.
  • A Web version of iTunes. Just like the desktop version of iTunes, except in the browser. Manages/plays audio files stored locally, with an option to back them up on the server (using .Mac or similar) as well. iTunes already utilizes information from the Internet so well (Web radio, podcasting iTMS, CDDB, etc.) that it’s easy to imagine it as a Web app. (And why stop at audio…video would work equally as well.)
  • Flickr. Manage image files locally and on Flickr’s server in the browser. You could even do some rudimentary photo manipulation (brightness, contrast, red-eye correction, etc.) in the browser using JavaScript or even Flash. Prepare a bunch of photos for uploading to Flickr while on the plane ride home and they automatically sync when you next connect to the Internet.
  • Newsreader. Read sites while offline (I bet this is #1 on any Bloglines user’s wish list). Access your reading list from any computer with a browser (I bet this is #1 on any standalone newsreader user’s wish list).
  • File backup. A little WebOS app that helps you back up your files to Apple’s .Mac service, your ISP, or someone like Google. You’ll specify what you want backed up and when through the browser and the backup program will take care of the rest.

I’m looking at the rest of the most commonly used apps on my Powerbook and there’s not too many of them that absolutely need to be standalone desktop applications. Text editor, IM[3], Word, Excel, FTP, iCal, address book…I could imagine versions of these running in a browser.

So who’s going to build these WebOS applications? Hopefully anyone with XHTML/JavaScript/CSS skills, but that depends on how open the platform is. And that depends on whose platform it is. Right now, there are five organizations who are or could be moving in this direction:

  • Google. If Google is not thinking in terms of the above, I will eat danah’s furriest hat. They’ve already shifted the focus of Google Desktop with the addition of Sidebar and changing the name of the application (it used to be called Google Desktop Search…and the tagline changed from “Search your own computer” to the more general “Info when you want it, right on your desktop”). To do it properly, I think they need their own browser (with bundled Web server, of course) and they need to start writing their applications to work on OS X and Linux (Google is still a Windows company)[4]. Many of the moves they’ve made in the last two years have been to outflank Microsoft, and if they don’t use Google Desktop’s “insert local code into remote sites” trick to make whatever OS comes with people’s computers increasingly irrelevant, they’re stupid, stupid, stupid. Baby step: make Gmail readable offline.
  • Yahoo. I’m pretty sure Yahoo is thinking in these terms as well. That’s why they bought Konfabulator: desktop presence. And Yahoo has tons of content and apps that that would like to offer on a WebOS-like platform: mail, IM, news, Yahoo360, etc. Challenge for Yahoo: widgets aren’t enough…many of these applications are going to need to run in Web browsers. Advantages: Yahoo seems to be more aggressive in opening up APIs than Google…chances are if Yahoo develops a WebOS platform, we’ll all get to play.
  • Microsoft. They’re going to build a WebOS right into their operating system…it’s likely that with Vista, you sometimes won’t be able to tell when you’re using desktop applications or when you’re at They’ll never develop anything for OS X or for Linux (or for browsers other than IE), so its impact will be limited. (Well, limited to most of the personal computers in the world, but still.)
  • Apple. Apple has all the makings of a WebOS system right now. They’ve got the browser, a Web server that’s installed on every machine with OS X, Dashboard, iTMS, .Mac, Spotlight, etc. All they’re missing is the applications (aside from the Dashboard widgets). But like Microsoft, it’s unlikely that they’ll write anything for Windows or Linux, although if OS X is going to run on cheapo Intel boxes, their market share may be heading in a positive direction soon.
  • The Mozilla Foundation. This is the most unlikely option, but also the most interesting one. If Mozilla could leverage the rapidly increasing user base of Firefox and start bundling a small Web server with it, then you’ve got the beginnings of a WebOS that’s open source and for which anyone, including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and anyone with JavaScript chops, could write applications. To market it, they could refer to the whole shebang as a new kind of Web browser, something that sets it apart from IE, a true “next generation” browser capable of running applications no matter where you are or what computer (or portable device) you’re using.

So yeah, that’s the idea of the WebOS (as I see it developing) in a gigantic nutshell. The reality of it will probably be a lot messier and take a lot longer than most would like. If someone ends up doing it, it will probably not be as open as it could be and there will likely be competing Web platforms just as there are now competing search engines, portals, widget applications (Konfabulator, Dashboard, Google Desktop Sidebar), etc., but hopefully not. There’s lots more to discuss, but I’m going to stop here before this post gets even more ridiculously long. My thanks if you even made this far.

[1] Actually, the biggest potential problems with all this are the massive security concerns (a Web browser that has access to data on your local hard drive?!!!??) and managing user expectations (desktop/web app hybrids will likely be very confusing for a lot of users). Significant worries to be sure, but I believe the advantages will motivate the folks developing the platform and the applications to work through these concerns.

[2] For more discussion of Web applications, check out Adam Rifkin’s post on Weblications.

[3] Rumor has it that Google is releasing an IM client soon (more here). I’ll be pretty surprised if it’s not significantly Web-based. As Hotmail proved for email, there’s no reason that IM has to happen in a desktop app (although the alerting is problematic).

[4] Maybe Google thinks they can’t compete with Apple’s current offerings (Spotlight, Dashboard, Safari, iPhoto) on their own platform, but that’s not a good way of thinking about it. Support as many people as you can on as many different architectures as you can, that’s the advantage of a Web-based OS. Microsoft certainly hasn’t thought of Apple as a serious competitor in the OS space for a long time…until Web applications started coming of age recently, Microsoft’s sole competitor has been Microsoft.

RSS 3.0?

RSS 3.0?

Google News now offering RSS/Atom feeds. (via Zawodony)

Google News now offering RSS/Atom feeds. (via Zawodony)