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The classic app: NetNewsWire

Here is the news: this was (and is) the best RSS app around

Some apps are fleeting. Others are core parts of the iPhone’s history. In this entry in our series on classic apps, we explore a news reader that’s still helping people around the world get to news they want – and need – to read.

What was NetNewsWire?

NetNewsWire was a pioneering app that let you subscribe to news feeds. Originally released for Mac – and then for iPhone on day one of the App Store – it was a great way to follow news sources you cared about and never miss a headline.

NetNewsWire 1.0.

Why was it a classic?

NetNewsWire prioritized speed. It was about getting to the content you wanted to read, with a minimum of fuss. On iPhone in particular, this sense of efficiency made it stand out, even when other RSS clients entered the fray.

Where is it now?

A few years ago, NetNewsWire returned to its original creator – see our interview below for the full story. Version 6 is currently available on the App Store, for free. We highly recommend you check it out, whether you’re an RSS veteran or a newcomer.

Visit the NetNewsWire website, or get NetNewsWire (free) from the App Store.

As sleek as ever: NetNewsWire 6.0.

Q&A: A brief history of NetNewsWire

Get all the headlines and history on NetNewsWire as we chat to the app’s creator, Brent Simmons.

What was the genesis of NetNewsWire?

Brent: While working at UserLand Software, I got hooked on our RSS reader app, Radio UserLand. It wasn’t an RSS reader like NetNewsWire. (There weren’t any RSS readers like NetNewsWire back then.) Instead, Radio UserLand was a Mac app and a mini web server that ran on your machine.

It displayed a river of news – excerpts in reverse chronological order. You’d click a link to visit the original article. There were no folders and tags – it was more like Twitter.

At the same time, developers like me were excited about how Mac OS X made writing apps easier and way more fun – and the new interface was the most beautiful I’d ever seen. So after leaving UserLand in early 2002, my plan was to write an RSS reader that would be beautiful and native – nothing like Radio UserLand.

NetNewsWire Lite 1.0 (free) shipped in late 2002; NetNewsWire 1.0 (paid) shipped in early 2003. It was the first on any platform to use now-familiar three-pane organization: feeds/folders; timeline; article. It was a hit – and it quickly became clear NetNewsWire was more than a way for me to learn modern Mac app development – it was a thing I did.

An early version of NetNewsWire for Mac.

And why did you care about RSS?

I was always a voracious reader. But the rise of Facebook and Twitter gave me another reason to care: it’s about the open web, which is more valuable than any social network – and the closest thing we have to a guarantee of free speech.

Here’s the kind of thing I worry about: if Elon Musk successfully buys Twitter and decides to ban Black Lives Matter activism from the network, what would happen then? We need to care for the open web – because publishing the truth matters.

Social media billionaires don’t want to defend any of this. Their interests are their own, not about a just and prosperous society. They can and should moderate their own platforms, but we can’t let them own our civil discourse, because they will dictate what is and is not out-of-bounds. We’ve already given those platforms way too much power, and you can see the terrible effects that’s had.

Why did you decide to create NetNewsWire for iPhone?

When the iPhone came out, pretty much every Mac developer I knew started writing iOS apps. It was a brilliant new frontier with an almost magic UI – and the App Store looked like it might be a gold rush.

Few Mac developers were making much money, and the opportunity to apply our skills to this new platform with – we hoped – a much larger customer base was hardly a thing to think about. We just did it. And so NetNewsWire 1.0 for iPhone shipped on day one of the iPhone App Store.

What was your approach to the original iPhone app?

It synced with NewsGator – you couldn’t even add news feeds on the iPhone. That kind of thing wasn’t unusual back then. Remember with those early iPhones how small the screens were, and how slow they were.

But you could still catch up on all your news in NetNewsWire, and your feed would sync with other readers. No-one expected more in those days – a simple RSS reader in your pocket was already a miracle.

An article preview in NetNewsWire 1.0.

How did the iPhone interface impact on the app’s design?

Things are different these days – iOS apps are expected to have close to parity with a desktop version, and iOS-specific features too. But in 2008, I concentrated on keeping it as simple as possible.

Much of my work went into making the app fast – which was hard with early iPhones. They struggled to do much. But that was the fun of it – app writers had to do hardcore performance work for the first time in years. You could tell when an app succeeded – it scrolled ‘like butter.’ Most did not.

NetNewsWire has always had minimalist design. Why is that?

It uses the system user interface, which is really Apple’s UI – and Apple has way more resources, talent, and experience than I do! It’s not an awful baseline app creators are challenged to rise above – it’s there to help us write great apps, without reinventing and maintaining a bunch of custom wheels.

That doesn’t mean we don’t do design. Design is how an app works, not just how it looks. There are decisions to be made about what goes where, how things are laid out, toolbar icons, and so on. My goal is to make NetNewsWire look inevitable. A lot of effort goes into making it look like we didn’t design it at all and did the obvious thing at every turn.

We want our app to be useful, fun and not get in people’s way. It looks and feels like the platform they chose and that they already love. Users shouldn’t have to think of the app when catching up on news – it should just disappear.

That’s not to criticize custom interfaces. Many people love that kind of creativity, and those apps can serve as laboratories, and their innovations can become conventions. Apple needs both kinds of app.

NetNewsWire’s Black Pixel incarnation.

Why did you sell – and, more importantly, return – to NetNewsWire?

I sold NetNewsWire to NewsGator in 2005 – and went to work there. It was clear mobile devices were going to be huge and syncing would be the only important issue for RSS readers. NewsGator was then the only RSS sync platform – and needed a Mac app. It was an easy decision for everyone.

Six years later, NewsGator had moved away from RSS. NetNewsWire had switched to use Google Reader, to save money – server costs were so much higher then. I became part of a new team, working on Glassboard – a kind of mobile-first proto-Slack. I had to let NetNewsWire go, and friends at Black Pixel agreed to buy it.

A few years later, I realized I missed writing an RSS reader and started making one called Evergreen. It would have competed with NetNewsWire, but by then Black Pixel’s business had changed and they gave me the name back. Evergreen 1.0 became NetNewsWire 5.0. I can never thank my friends at Black Pixel enough – Daniel Pasco, George Dick, and others took such good care of the app, and were so generous in returning it to me.

What were your goals for NetNewsWire 5.0?

For it to be super-stable and freakishly fast, bring you the news and not get in your way. It also needed immediate sync support, for which we picked Feedbin – founder Ben Ubois has been hugely supportive of NetNewsWire – with the promise of more to come.

Another goal was to make the app open source. NetNewsWire became a team effort. It’s a thrill to work with lead developer Maurice Parker and the many other contributors. I can’t even express how awesome this has been, and what it means to me personally.

We also wanted to make NetNewsWire free, to get people using RSS and keep open lines of communication that don’t rely on social networks. People who cannot afford to pay now have an RSS reader at least equal in quality to commercial apps.

The latest NetNewsWire on iPad.

What are your thoughts on recent – and future – versions of NetNewsWire?

We recently added a single-key shortcut I can’t believe we never had: ‘N’ takes you to the next unread article. It’s a small thing, but it makes me happy! But mainly, I love how fast the app is. We use such excruciatingly slow software all day, and kind of accept and put up with it. NetNewsWire is my stake in the ground where I say: no — we can write fast apps if we want to.

As for the future – we don’t plan far in advance. You can imagine features from NetNewsWire of old might return, like smart feeds. But you can count on us to add features slowly and carefully — it’s important to keep NetNewsWire fast, slim, and easy to use.