I have been a Mac user for a decade at this point. In the ten years I have been a part of the platform, one third-party application has been in constant service nearly the entire time: NetNewsWire. NetNewsWire was the first app that allowed users to subscribe to web site’s RSS feeds back when only the geekiest knew what the little orange XML icon was for. Through the rise and plateauing of RSS’s popularity in the mainstream, NetNewsWire has continuously been tweaked and improved to keep up with the trends in Internet technology.
One of the hardest aspects of building a great product is building longevity. If I were to look at a screenshot of my Mac five years ago, many of the third-party apps I used have either been abandoned by the developer of users have moved on to a new, better product. NetNewsWire has seemed to buck that trend Though it has gone through several design iterations and monetization plans in its eight years, one thing has always remained the same: NetNewsWire is the best RSS reading application for Mac OS X.
NetNewsWire is one of those apps that has gracefully made the transition from the days of pinstripes and drawers to source lists and integrated browsers. With each major revision to the application, Brent has taken the time to not only add new features to the application, but polish existing functionality to look and feel as if it belongs on a modern Mac OS X desktop.
Perhaps more important than modernizing the app’s chrome, each major revision of NetNewsWire has also been an opportunity to trim the fat and remove features. Users like a long list of features because it makes them feel like they are getting the most for their money, but the best apps are the ones that have the fewest features and execute on them insanely well. Three major features that existed in the first version of NetNewsWire are nowhere to be found in my current version.
The Sites drawer was a curated directory of RSS feeds maintained by Brent and his wife Sheila that helped solve the discoverability problem of RSS feeds in its early days. As browser makers started to add native RSS buttons to their products, the necessity of a feeds directory subsided and it was banished. RSS discoverability is still a problem, but given that the mainstream will never adopt the technology, it is probably one that will never be solved. People who want to use RSS know where to get it.
Daniel Jalkut’s MarsEdit weblog editor began its life as an integrated feature of NetNewsWire. The version built into NetNewsWire is rudimentary and I’d be shocked if anyone could draw the connection between the two apps if you put the current version of MarsEdit next to NetNewsWire 1.0. Initially it made sense to bundle weblog editing with an RSS reader as most of the sites offering feeds were weblogs, but as the RSS reader market matured breaking them out into two products turned out to be the right idea.
Whereas the weblog editor had a future, the outliner bundled with the first version of NetNewsWire is nowhere to be found. Even as a long-time NetNewsWire, I don’t think I ever intentionally launched the outliner when browsing through my feeds. The feature was designed as a storage area for clipping of content you found in your RSS feeds. I don’t recall if there was much outrage in its removal, but I can’t imagine there is anyone who preferred it to OmniOutliner or editing a plain text file.
The technology world is always interested in moving on to the next big thing. Yesterday it was MySpace. Today its Facebook. Who knows what will catch the Valley’s eye tomorrow. In this fast moving world, it’s comforting to know where are still developers out there who have the same mindset as I do and look to build products for the long-term rather than a quick cash out.
My oldest product turns three years old this Friday. As I look to shape the next three years of its life, I plan to look at the history of NetNewsWire for inspiration. It truly is the elder statesman of the Mac OS X platform.
The Nostalgic Addendum
I asked Brent to send me a screenshot of the original version of NetNewsWire to put at the top of this post. He went above and beyond and sent along an extensive full visual history of the app. I can’t help but share what he sent because it is interesting to look at how far both the app and the Mac as a platform have come since 2003.
MacNewsWire was the precursor to NetNewsWire for Mac OS X 10.1. It was free, and you had a predefined set of feeds that fetched news from a variety of Mac sites Brent liked. There was no WebKit yet. No Safari. No Core Data.
NetNewsWire 1. Still pre-Safari, pre-WebKit, pre-CoreData, pre-bindings.
In Brents words:
In those days, Mail.app still used a drawer for the accounts/mailboxes list. One of the most common feature requests I got was to put the feeds in a drawer, like Mail, so the app would be more standard. I’m glad I didn’t listen!
Also, it sounds crazy, but of all the releases of NetNewsWire, this was the one that got the most compliments on being a beautiful app.
NetNewsWire 2 was the first version to include a native WebKit browser inside. It was also the opportunity to remove the outliner and MarsEdit from the prodcuct.
Which brings us to today’s latest release, NetNewsWire 3.This is the version that has been in service the longest thanks to its maturity and a few side projects called the iPhone and iPad. There is a Lite version of NetNewsWire 4 on the Mac App Store, and I can’t wait to see the direction Brent takes version 4 of the full-featured app.