OK, geek boys and girls, pop quiz: How do you use Safari’s built-in RSS reader as a feed aggregator? Go ahead, take a minute to figure it out. Take 5. Whatever you need. I’ve got time.
In January 2003 I predicted that major browsers would have RSS capabilities built in within a year. Turns out I was off by about 18 months. So here we are in late 2007. Despite Apple’s innovations in bringing RSS to the browser, the Safari RSS experience still isn’t fully baked. In fact, it’s totally anemic.
Of the people you know who use Safari rather than Firefox, how many also use its built-in feed reader rather than a standalone aggregator? None? Me neither. It’s not because Safari’s RSS reader isn’t pretty. It’s a nice way to digest the site you’re currently looking at quickly. But as we all know, that’s missing the point. RSS only becomes a time saver when you can harvest dozens or hundreds of sites at a time, skimming for interesting headlines, drilling down where the meat looks tasty.
The power of RSS is not just in a cleaner way to parse a page, but in aggregation (though it is nice to ditch the clutter of a single page at times).
OK, so how do you do RSS aggregation in Safari? Should be easily figure-out-able. First off, clicking the blue RSS badge in a URL field does not subscribe you to a feed - it just lets you view it (how many people want to view a single site’s feed?). Once you’re viewing a feed, you need to bookmark that. Hold up right there. Clicking an RSS badge should throw a dialog: “Subscribe to this feed?” That change alone would result in far more uptake for Safari’s RSS reader.
When you do save an RSS bookmark, it gets filed along with your other bookmarks, not grouped with other RSS entries (philosophical question: Is an RSS bookmark the same as, or categorically different from a regular bookmark?).
So now that you’ve bookmarked a feed or two, how do you view them together, so that they become more useful than a bunch of bookmarks to simplified white pages? Safari’s bookmarks manager will intelligently locate all your intermingled bookmark feeds and show them in a list, but without showing story summaries or offering any kind of grouping functionality (the new folder icon is grayed out in this view). This is a promising start - maybe you can see aggregated bookmarks with story summaries as fly-outs from the Bookmarks menu? Nope - this “All RSS Feeds” collection is only available in the bookmark manager itself - you can’t make it appear in the Bookmarks menu. And why do you have to Manage Bookmarks when you want to read your feeds? Why is there no “Feeds” item on the View or Window or Bookmarks menus?
The only way to truly aggregate RSS feeds in Safari (that I can see) is to bookmark them together in a single folder, which must live in your Bookmarks Bar folder. Once that’s in place, click on that folder in the Bookmarks Bar and select “View All RSS Articles” from the bottom of the menu.
Why is this so difficult? Safari isn’t Final Cut Pro. You shouldn’t need to turn to the documentation to figure out how to view a simple aggregation of feeds. What’s that? The documentation doesn’t even mention that it’s possible? Silly me.
I gave Apple the benefit of the doubt when RSS capabilities first appeared, but continued using NetNewsWire, thinking I’d return later when the feature matured. But now it’s been a couple of years, and I finally got around to installing the Safari 3 beta. Love the new in-page search, love the resizable text fields, love the speed. But the RSS reader? Unchanged, as far as I can tell. What’s going on here?
An RSS reader will be built into Leopard’s Mail.app, which could change the game a bit. Let’s hope it runs with the ball, though that leads to philosophical question #2: Are RSS feeds better suited to live in the browser, or your mail reader?
Apple - Whatever you do with RSS in Leopard, please turn up the voltage on the de-confusifizer. RSS is important technology, and consumers aren’t going to get excited about it until you simultaneously show them its power and make it simple. Isn’t that what you do best?