I sort of have this pet peeve with computer software. When something doesn’t work exactly the way I want it to I have to fix it. This sort of explains why I keep switching and tweaking window managers and themes. My current peeve is with RSS and Atom feeds, especially when it comes to podcasts.
You see, not all feeds are created equally. There are so many different formats and optional tags with true or false meta information that it quickly becomes very difficult to write software to manage every feed 100% perfectly. But with sufficient hacking we can get close enough. The problem here is that every feed is at its core a list of links, hopefully in chronological order. No matter what aggregator or feed reader you use it treats all lists of links the same way. It doesn’t know any better, and it can’t.
This poses a problem because as a person I don’t treat all RSS feeds in the same manner and my software does. This mismatch causes me a lot of wasted clicking. Some of the feeds I read are things like slashdot or digg. They update so frequently that I don’t need to be notified of new updates. I just visit them at my leisure, and I know there will be new content. So what I want is to get all of that new content in an efficient manner. A reader like rawdog is well suited to this task. It creates a single web page with all the items from subscribed feeds in a compact and easy to read manner with newest items on top. Everything is color coded to let you know which site it came from.
But there are other sites which only update a few times a week. For these sites I need an effortless way to determine if there is new content available or not. Looking inside a Firefox bookmarks folder once or twice every day is not so good. Perhaps if Firefox simply monitored the feeds and knew which items I had read. Then it could automatically open and blink a new tab with the appropriate content already in it when it becomes available. That would be a pretty slick extension.
There is yet another kind of feed, feeds like del.icio.us/popular and google news. These are feeds with a large variety of rapidly changing links in no particular order. For these feeds there needs to be some sort of filter and ranking algorithm. Items I am more interested in would be filtered to the top and others not even displayed. These aren’t feeds I constantly monitor for news, but ones I visit during downtime just to get an overview of what’s happening. So an aggregator that generates a custom page putting hot headlines in a more prominent position while still displaying others in less detail would be best. Then I could click on headlines that looked interesting and the aggregator could learn more about what I wanted to see.
The worst problem is when it comes to something other than articles. Webcomics are a particular problem. Some comics have news articles, and others do not. I think what would be best would be a single page, like the comics page in the newspaper. This page could arrange the comics in a custom layout determined by me. That way, like the newspaper, I could always locate comics in familiar positions. If a comic had a related news article I could click the related comic to have the news open in a new tab. Also, the ability to browse the archives of each comic with first, back, forward and latest buttons would be very useful. At best they would change the comic on the page in an AJAX fashion without reloading.
For podcasts I have an even worse problem since I need to manage not only the checking and looking at feeds, but also the downloading and deleting of audio files. So far, no feed reader lets you set different options for different podcast feeds. The whole thing really bites. Most pocasts come out with an episode every day or week, so I configure my podcatcher for those. But it means there are other podcasts I completely ignore because it is too much trouble to read them. For normal podcasts I set iTunes to get every episode and delete them after I have listened to them.
There are two types of podcasts that give me trouble. The first is news podcasts. NPR 10am news in particular is the trouble. I don’t care about yesterday’s news. So if I didn’t listen to it yesterday I want it deleted when a new news report comes out. Only the newest podcast should be kept and all others deleted. Music podcasts like the hype machine pose an even worse problem. For a podcast like that I want every mp3 in the list to be downloaded and to remain downloaded. But songs that fall of the bottom of the feed should be automatically deleted unless I specify otherwise. There is currently no podcatcher that gives this sort of option.
So what to do? I can resort to using a plethora of different aggregators to manage all the different feeds of information coming in. But that becomes tedious to have to have so many tabs open for web based aggregators. It’s even worse for applications because they are much harder to switch than tabs. What I need is a Firefox/Flock extension that takes care of all of these things in a graceful way with an intuitive interface. I can try to do it on my own, but it will be quite shitty. Here’s hoping someone like Google or Apple can do it right. Because that is what we will need to upgrade from web 2.0 to web 2.1.