February 7, 2006
@ 12:35 AM
I've recently been thinking about the overlap and differences between applications for reading email and applications for reading RSS. I started thinking more about this topic after reading the following excerpted blog posts.

In his blog post The RSS Experience in IE7 Joshua Allen wrote

Dare says as much; IE7 was not intended to replace tools like RSS Bandit, NewsGator, or Outlook 12. It's not a matter of trying to keep small ISVs in business, as much as a decision to put the RSS-Bandit style reading experience in the products where it belongs; namely Outlook and OE. IE7 doesn't read NNTP feeds either; that's what OE is for.

In his blog post Email is Abused Omar Shahine wrote

I firmly believe that email is a fantastic tool, and that it’s also heavily abused in the work place. More often than not, what you hear when you send an email is deafening silence or a flurry of incomprehensible replies breaking threading and screwing up the conversation flow.

It is my firm belief that many folks don’t have any system for dealing with their email. They get overwhelmed by the amount of mail that they have, and as a result are unpredictable in getting back to you (if they do).

What this means is that not only do you have to manage your inbox, but you have to manage their inbox. I’ve started to write things down that I want to talk to people about, and every so often, walk into their offices and talk about the issues. It’s weird as this is what I used to do long before email got crazy.

On the one hand, Joshua Allen argues that consuming RSS feeds should be the purvey of traditional mail readers. On the other, Omar Shahine points out that traditional mail readers do a poor job of enabling people to manage information overload in environments with high rates of information flow. I agree 100% with the implications of Omar's post. Traditional 3-pane mail readers do a very poor job of enabling people keep on top of the information they consume. Thus, I think it's a bad idea to add yet another fire hose of information into the mix (i.e. making a traditional mail reader like Outlook my primary RSS reader).

I've not always been of this opinion. A few years ago I wrote a blog post entitled RSS, WinFS and Building a Universal Information Client where I discussed the concept of a universal information aggregator and argued that Outlook was the closest application to what I envisioned. Since then I've become familiar with the term digital lifestyle aggregator (DLA) which is similar to and better defined than my idea of a universal information aggregator. I believe that the DLA concept gives a clear idea of what information aggregators such as personal information managers and RSS readers should evolve into.

Why did I change my mind about Outlook being the ideal DLA? Well, the longer I worked on RSS Bandit, the more I felt that mimicing Outlook in its entirety wasn't the right approach for approaching building an RSS reader. I mentioned some of the problems I have with the Outlook model in my post The Problem With RSS Readers Inspired By Outlook where I wrote

The major problem is that the Outlook mail reading paradigm has a fundamental assumption which turns out to be flawed. It assumes you want to read every item you get in your inbox. This flawed assumption leads to the kind of information overload that hampers the productivity of lots of people I know at work. I've met several people who seem to always have hundreds unread items in their email inbox. For this reason I always have to learn who's easier to reach via IM or swinging by their office in person than sending them mail.

Most people I know get four classes of messages in their information aggregators (I am lumping reading email, reading news and reading RSS/Atom feeds into a single category). These are

1. notifications (checkin mails, comments to my blog, etc)
2. headlines (email newsletters, feeds from news sites, etc)
3. messages sent directly to me or that is similarly relevant
4. messages sent to an interest group I am a part of (XML-DEV mailing list, comp.text.xml newsgroup, etc)

The problem is that the typical Outlook inspired information aggregator treats all of the above as being of equal relevance. Even though Outlook does provide mechanisms for managing assigning relevance to incoming messages, they are either hard to find or cumbersome to use.

This is definitely one of the areas that needs to be improved in the world of information aggregators in general and RSS/Atom readers in particular.

The bottom line is that I think that traditional mail readers do a poor job of enabling people to manage the amount of information they consume today. With RSS, we've had the opportunity to experiment with different models of presenting information to users from "river of news" style aggregators to personalized portal pages instead of sticking to the traditional 2  or 3 pane readers which dominate email and news readers.

Unfortunately, the major browser vendors haven't gotten in on the act. Instead of using RSS as an opportunity to explore new ways of presenting information to users we've seen rather lame attempts at RSS integration into the browser such as Firefox's Live Bookmarks feature and the upcoming integration of RSS into IE 7 which is just slightly better.

So where are we? The major browsers have punted on solving the information overload problem caused by RSS while integrating it into their products. Similarly, mail readers already suck at dealing with email information overload let alone when RSS feeds are added to the mix. As it stands, I'm not sure where we're going to from here. In the meantime, I'm going to start exploring alternative Web browsers like Flock. Perhaps they'll be bolder in re-imagining how to improve the overall experience of people using the World Wide Web today.


 

Tuesday, February 7, 2006 1:52:32 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Browsing is different from email is different from rss is different from IM. What's the rush to "aggregate"? Why not individual tools/components/apps that are tailored to each endeavour?
pwb
Wednesday, February 8, 2006 12:51:07 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I would also like to add, and I don't think I am alone, that I use RSS Bandit and Outlook at different times. I try to read e-mail as it comes in - it can interrupt me. I read RSS feeds when I want do - when I am bored or eating lunch. I have tried RSS tools integrated into outlook before, but it's too distracting to have stuff constantly coming into a tool I look at for important messages all the time. I know I _could_ ignore them but I feel a compulsion to empty my inbox so I know there are no fires going on - e-mail as a task list.

Now, if I could go the other way and say, "from now on messages from this person don't go into outlook, but go into an RSS feed I can check at lunch" that might be useful. I grit my teeth everytime I feel the need to subscribe to a mailing list these days. I wish they were all just RSS feeds.
Wednesday, February 8, 2006 11:27:56 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I agree with this; I would actually go a step further and say that traditional e-mail metaphors are not even able to handle *e-mail* today. I want instant wordwheeling on fulltext, author, subject, and more loosely "inferred" categorizations. I now dump all of my e-mail into unsorted folders and use MSN Desktop Search to find things, but the UI could be vastly improved (click on place, subject, etc. to drill down). I think if you had a UI for this, it would also work very well for tracking blogs, and even browsing through web page history (to me, web browsing history is very similar to looking up historical e-mail, but nut nearly the same as traditional web browsing). I would point out that D.W. still prefers the bloglines-style aggregator experience, and this is also useful in some scenarios (and if you buy that, then IE *could* implement this pretty easily). But I prefer something like RSS Bandit or OE with loose categorization.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006 7:16:48 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
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