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Why Facebook and AOL Think You Need a News Reader App

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Here's what's driving the race to build the best desktop and mobile readers -- in plain English for a change.

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When Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) announced that its Google Reader feature would be discontinued as of July 1, the outpouring of rage was loud and immediate. Still, it barely registered as an Internet phenomenon. Millions of people were annoyed, but a billion more said, in effect, "Huh? What's a news reader?"

Which makes it interesting that AOL, Inc. (NYSE:AOL) and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) are falling all over each other to rush out a replacement for a feature that Google apparently decided could never achieve critical mass.

The early judgment of tech writers is that both efforts are likely to be a mess, but that conclusion is premature to say the least. AOL's version went up hours ago as a limited-access beta test, and Facebook's news reader is literally just a rumor.

Other smaller companies, like the producers of venture capital-funded Flipboard, are scrambling for attention for their existing or brand-new alternatives to Google Reader. They are ready and eager, they say, to accept converts from Google Reader.

All of the above efforts, up to and including Google Reader, seem doomed to be niche services beloved only by news junkies. Until somebody does it right, that is. And then the "news reader," probably under another, better name, will be the personal front page that everybody uses all the time to check what's new and what's useful on the Internet.

First, a little plain English about the news reader.

A news reader picks up the latest updates from any or all of the sites you like to check regularly, and compiles them in a format that you can easily browse through. Some of them are just lists of capsule descriptions and links, while others try for a more visually attractive magazine-style format.

News readers are currently compiled from RSS feeds. RSS stands for Rich Site Summary, but is sometimes translated as Really Simple Syndication. It is a Really Annoying Acronym invented by techies to make you feel they understand things that baffle you. (The same people invent obscure terms for flipping a switch off and then back on.)

So, an RSS feed is a list of brief summaries - really just the top paragraph of a text file - compiled automatically as new entries are published to a site, and then emailed to subscribers. It alerts them that there's something new, and gives them a direct link to it. Everybody's got an RSS feed, including this site.

A "news reader" automatically compiles a user's personal selection of RSS feeds into a single standard format, so that the user can browse through the latest.

You can imagine what a really great design team could do with that concept. In its current form, an RSS feed is usually a plain vanilla text file, but there's no law against capturing images or any other multimedia.

The ultimate news reader app might, say, take a bunch of feeds selected by a user and automatically format them into a kind of personal and constantly updated "home page." Ideally, yours might include local traffic conditions, a few stock quotes from your portfolio, some breaking news headlines, and a picture of your niece's graduation, fresh off your Facebook feed.

Even if you don't use one, you can see why this example - or even the plain vanilla flavors currently available - could be different and better than depending on a search engine or your Facebook friends to select what you see from across the entire Internet. Using a good reader would be a lot easier than clicking to a dozen or so sites to see if anything's new, and still missing the best stuff because it's somewhere else.

We all could use a great news reader right now, but there's another reason why Facebook and AOL have taken it up as an urgent mission, and that is the move to mobile devices.

They figure that the first one to produce a mobile news reader app that gets widely adopted will win the biggest and most loyal mobile audience, and they're probably right.

This week AOL launched a beta version of its AOL Reader, with an image-rich format on a minimalist background that is getting some positive reviews from Wired, among others.

Other reviewers sneer because it's a (free) ad-supported feature, or just because it's AOL.

It must be said that tech writers are not the best source of consumer software reviews for the rest of us. From the look of the early beta version, AOL deserves credit for going well beyond the plain text RSS feed.

Facebook also appears to be going out on a limb. As mentioned, the Facebook Reader project is literally just a rumor, although it is a very widespread one that has achieved extensive coverage in the business and technology media.

The latest, from TechCrunch, says that Facebook has dismissed the RSS standard altogether, concluding that it's a "niche product" that won't attract the kind of mainstream audience Facebook wants for its news reader. It also may be developing its reader strictly as a mobile app.

That's encouraging.

Unfortunately, AOL's beta version tells us nothing about how its reader will look or work on mobile devices. And that's the rub.

Smartphones have taken us back into the Dark Ages of the Internet in some ways. They are slow, since the 4G network is mythical for most of us. The screens are tiny, and the text is pinhead-sized. The pages are clumsily reworked from the original PC screen versions. The sound is tinny.

And this is what most of the world will be using from now on.

So, the real question is whether Facebook or AOL or someone else is going to design a news reader that works on a desktop or on mobile, and looks as consumer-friendly as, say, the cover of People magazine, circa 1989.

If you're interested in trying a news reader, a number of the leading candidates are compared by TechCrunch.

Also read:

Tech News: Samsung's New Tablets Cast a Wider and Cheaper Net Than Apple Inc's

The Telecoms Are Innovating... and Everybody Hates Them Anyway

Apple Inc. Doubles iPhone 4 Sales in China
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