Article: Interview with NetNewsWire Lead Brent Simmons

by on July 19, 2006

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to discuss the NetNewsWire newsreader with its lead developer, Brent Simmons. Simmons works at NewsGator, the a company that bought Ranchero Software, last October. He spoke about NetNewsWire, the adoption of RSS, and the shift from being an independent developer to working for a larger organization…

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Eric Schwarz: For those who might have been living under a rock, what is NetNewsWire?

Brent Simmons: In general terms they are RSS and Atom newsreaders, and if that doesn’t mean anything to you, the idea is that you get news from various web sites that you’d normally go to in your browser, it comes to you inside of an application, more like email. You don’t have to go out and seek it and remember what you read and didn’t read. The program does all that for you, so the upshot being that you can follow more news with less work.

Eric: Since Safari started having RSS features built-in, along with some of the other browsers, how has this affected NetNewsWire in terms of software development and competition?

Brent: Well, when Safari first came out with RSS reading features, NetNewsWire sales went up fairy dramatically, actually and I attributed that to the fact that Apple, who has a much larger reach than I did, suddenly educated people into what RSS is and they started looking around and found that Safari wasn’t the only program that did RSS. Many people found that NetNewsWire had more features that they were looking for, so that kind of education and the Apple “seal of approval” for RSS was a really big help. We can’t thank them enough. They also did a cool thing which is that they made it so within Safari you can choose your RSS feeder, so you’re not locked into one reader or another. That’s a good move that we appreciate greatly.

Eric: With some of the other competing newsreaders out there, such as NewsFire and others, how do you see yourselves fitting in with the grand scheme of things?

Brent: Frankly, I guess we don’t really think about the specific competitors like NewsFire, and so on, that much. They’re pretty good, no doubt about it—most of them anyway are quite good. My job has always been to make NetNewsWire the best newsreader that I can possibly do and that’s regardless of whether there are competing apps or there aren’t.

Eric: At Ranchero Software, your company before NewsGator took over, you guys made some other software, too, and it wasn’t all necessarily for RSS-related things. You had software for blogs, TigerLaunch, and so on, but how do you see that continuing, now that you’ve been “absorbed”?

Brent: We recently updated our small freeware apps—that’s TigerLaunch, Huevos, and Big Cat. They’re free and pretty much do what I intended them to do in the first place, so there isn’t really a lot of updating needed, except recently I went through and made them all Universal binaries and fixed a couple of bugs in TigerLaunch. Those things are still there and available. I never did have grand plans for them so I don’t think that’s really changed.

Now, MarsEdit, on the other hand, is another for-pay application. It’s a weblog writing tool, trying to be a complement to NetNewsWire, which is a reading tool. It’s really RSS in the sense that you’re writing for your weblog, and your weblog goes and publishes the feeds. At NewsGator, we hired Gus Mueller, on a contract basis to do some MarsEdit updates, which have already been released. It’s still there and we plan on updating it, but NetNewsWire is obviously of the more popular application.

Eric: A lot of people use NetNewsWire Lite because it’s the free version and has some features over Safari, but what would be the main reason to encourage them to get the full version, besides a few more features here and there?

Brent: It depends because people want different things. For some people, the embedded tabbed browser is really cool—the ability to open your pages right from within there. It even remembers your tabs between runs of the application. Some people just love that feature. Other people love the fact that there’s searching. Other people love that you can keep items for a long time. Some people like flags and flagging items. There’s scripting. The list of features that the full version really has is quite long and it really depends on the person as to which combination of features they really take to or not. That said, NetNewsWire Lite’s a great app, and if people are happy with that, I personally don’t get bent out of shape because I really like that sort of thing, and you do want people to check out the full version.

Eric: Even on the Lite version, there’s a trial of the full version so people can get a taste of it.

Brent: Yep, there’s a 30-day free trial that’s fully functional.

Eric: With NewsGator being involved with this project now, do you guys see more updates and more backing and support than previously?

Brent: Yeah, it’s really been cool to have more resources at my disposal than I had before. Before, it was my wife and I. We did a great and valiant job, but NetNewsWire got so popular it became a really really big job. Now there’s a whole 14, which frees me up to spend a lot more time programming and I probably spent more programming time in the first six months of this year than I did entirely in the previous year. That’s a really good thing. I also love being able to talk to other engineers and developers and all that kind of stuff. It’s just a really cool deal for me.

Eric: Previously, with NetNewsWire, there were a number of prerelease versions and betas. How has this changed with NewsGator being in charge and what might we see in the future?

Brent: We went through an extensive public beta process earlier this year and it lasted a few months, but it didn’t compare to the public beta process that you pointed out [pre-NewsGator]. Part of the reason for that is that I have way more time to actually work on the app and get it done in half the time than prior to the acquisition. If it seems like fewer updates, part of it is just that I’m able to work more quickly. Another thing is that I had just about sworn off the idea of public betas myself but NewsGator is very much in favor of public betas. Had the acquisition not happened, I might not have done a public beta at all.

About future stuff, I have a list of hundreds of items. Obviously, some of those have to do with syncing. Other thing have to do with more and better management of feeds and news item. One of the features I’m working on right now—clipping—allows you to “clip” individual articles and store them in your own hierarchy folders and this will also sync with NewsGator, but it’s one of those things that people have asked for over and over again.

Eric: Finally, where do you see the RSS landscape in the next few months or years? Do you see it exploding like everyone says, or do you see it leveling off and that’s it?

Brent: I think it will get very, very, very large. I think it’s already probably bigger than most people realize and there are people using RSS that don’t even realize that they are using RSS. Part of the popularity will come from that, just finding RSS making it into more and more applications of various types, but at the same time I think that the technology itself has become easier and easier to use. Right now, it’s still kinda difficult—you have to seek out feeds, and figure out what to subscribe to and all that kind of stuff. When people in general don’t really think that way, they tend to think more about the things that they’re interested in. It’s a question of making it so much easier for people to use than it is right now.

A big thanks goes out to Brent Simmons for taking the time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts with us. You can find out more about NetNewsWire at NewsGator’s site.

This post has been filed in Articles and Interviews