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
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)
(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
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
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.