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The writeable web: lather, rinse, repeat

by Giles Turnbull -- 2003/01/20

NetNewsWire has become one of the most talked-about applications for Mac-owning webloggers. In its initial incarnation as a freeware RSS reader, it successfully boosted awareness and usage of RSS across the blogosphere. Just when people thought it couldn't get any better, the commercial version appeared offering built-in weblog editing too. WriteTheWeb spoke to NetNewsWire's creator, Brent Simmons.

WriteTheWeb:How has the widespread positive reaction to NetNewsWire felt? Did you realise, or expect, that you were building an app for which there was such great demand?

Brent Simmons: It feels really *good* to have so many people like NetNewsWire.

If you've had a small hit, a popular website or piece of software, then you know what I'm talking about. It doesn't make life on earth a complete paradise for you -- I don't actually walk around in some kind of blissed-out daze -- but it's pretty nice.

I had no idea NetNewsWire would be as popular as it is. I did think that it would find some users, that there would be people who'd like a Usenet/email-style app for reading RSS. But more people use it than I expected. Definitely.

Everyone *wuvs* NetNewsWire. Has it got overwhelming at any stage? Based on the positive reaction to Lite, did you feel under additional pressure while building Pro?

It hasn't become overwhelming, no. It's not like people are knocking on my door or calling me up all the time. The only thing that's overwhelming is chat. I can't launch iChat without getting a dozen conversations going. So I almost never launch it. I suspect it's a vicious circle, though -- if I had it running more, I wouldn't get so kind-of jumped on every time I do run it.

I do feel under some pressure while building Pro -- but I don't know if it's additional pressure. I have my internal pressure to do a good job, and I had that before and I have it still. In some ways having more people watching may lessen the pressure -- because it means I'm not working alone, because there are lots of people who provide great feedback. The better feedback, the better the app.

For instance, the first betas of NetNewsWire Lite didn't have an aggregate view or groups. I wasn't going to do those features. But so many people asked for them, and they were totally right, and I'm glad they made those feature requests.

We remember using your MacNewsWire app. Was that the inspiration for NetNewsWire, or a means of testing out your code?

MacNewsWire has much of the guts of NetNewsWire -- the RSS parser, the database that remembers which items are read or not, many of the UI basics. It was a way of getting this stuff working for NetNewsWire.

It was also a test to get some early feedback. Do people like reading news outside the browser? It turns out they did.

Did you always plan for the Pro version to include write/edit features, as well as read/browse features?

Yes. From day one the separation has been that the pro version would include weblog editing and an outliner. It would be a read/write app. That was to me a very simple and logical way to separate the two versions.

Why do you think it's so important/useful to have the reading and editing features rolled into one application?

It's nice to be able to select a headline that you want to blog, click a button, and have your weblog editor appear. That's how it works in Radio UserLand, for instance -- only in that case you're using a browser-based app. But the principle is the same.

At a simpler level, lots of weblog systems let you edit via the browser. Blogger, Manila, Movable Type, etc. You also read via the browser. Reading and writing go together. They just do. (Like bacon and eggs. No, better -- more like chickens and eggs. The connection between reading and writing is natural and intimate.)

That said -- at some point I plan to support external editing in NetNewsWire Pro. You'd select a headline, then choose a command like Edit in Kung-Log or Edit in Blapp. That way if you prefer another editor you can totally still use it but use NetNewsWire for reading.

A newbie might think that RSS had been developed purely for the benefit of the blogging community. What do you think are the brightest future directions for it to go in?

One direction I see RSS going in is, simply, wider adoption. I was happy to see Apple add RSS feeds recently, for instance.

Another direction: RSS is useful for anything that changes. The Fink people added feeds for when new and updated packages are released. Totally cool. So if you use Fink (I do!) you can keep up-to-date.

The category of "news" can be thought of as hugely broad, if you just think about it as things that change. So RSS is useful for more than weblogs.

What's been the biggest headache you've had to deal with during the development of the app?

Weblog editing.

Apple's XML-RPC framework has a very nasty crashing bug that I've been working around. (I hear that the bug will be fixed in 10.2.4, though I don't know that for sure. Consider it rumor.) The XML-RPC framework is how NetNewsWire communicates with weblogs to post items and get recent posts.

Another problem is that every weblog system is a bit different from every other, even when they support the same API or APIs. Movable Type in particular has a bunch of additional options -- and people are quite right to ask for NetNewsWire to support those options. But that means extra work for Movable Type. Not a big deal, but then other systems have unique features too. It all adds up to quite a few special cases.

Another headache has been the HTML renderer built into OS X. It's very basic. I get lots of bug reports that NetNewsWire's HTML pane doesn't handle right-aligned images or play QuickTime movies or whatever, since Apple's HTML renderer doesn't handle these things.

The good news is that I plan to move to either Safari's renderer or Gecko, and so this will improve. It's going to be a headache to do this, but I expect it will be very nice once it's done.

It's 2005. What's happened to the read-write web, and to NetNewsWire, since the good ol' days in 2003?

I seriously hope that by 2005 lots more people write for the web than they do now. That the web is a read/write medium is still in 2003 a minority position.

I put up my first website in late 1994, and it's almost ten years later, and I'm utterly surprised that we're still working on getting people writing for the web. Part of it may just be education, letting people know that hey, it's okay to write for the web, it's fun, it's not hard, you won't get struck by lightning.

But maybe it still is too difficult... Check out the weblog preferences in NetNewsWire Pro. It asks for a bunch of settings. Ideally it should just ask you where your website is -- that should be all it takes. We're not there yet, but with things like RSD we're getting closer.

And maybe it's not just the settings that make it difficult. You have to get a website first, after all. And then you have to figure out how the browser or your weblog editor works.

Ideally writing for the web should be about as easy as writing something in TextEdit. Create it, write it, save it. Lather, rinse, repeat.