NetNewsWire 4

I’m not sure if I discovered Daring Fireball through NetNewsWire, or NetNewsWire through Daring Fireball. Either way, in my mind the two are inexorably linked to my introduction to the Mac community. A group of people who value usability and good design, typography, readability, and simple good sense. Before the Mac, my thoughts on software were that it was either written by thousands of contributors across the globe, or thousands of drones in basement cubicles. What I learned through NetNewsWire was that individual craftsmen made the best software, and I could get to know them through their work. I started making it a point to follow the people who made the software I used.

NetNewsWire was developed by Brent Simmons, one of the first developers who’s blog I made a point to follow. I followed him as he was hired by NewsGator, and after he left and went independent, and when he sold NetNewsWire to Black Pixel. Around this time RSS readers hit a rough patch when Google shut down Google Reader, the backend syncing engine used by NetNewsWire and many other RSS readers. I wasn’t too worried at the time. Several of the competing apps quickly adopted alternative syncing engines, and I expected NetNewsWire to follow suit.

It didn’t.

Black Pixel decided against supporting third party syncing engines and opted instead to build their own. In the man time, the older version of NetNewsWire atrophied. With no syncing engine the app was isolated, an island that needed to be a peninsula. I wanted to be able to skim the news on my phone or iPad and not have to re-read the same headlines on my Mac. Eventually I abandoned NetNewsWire in favor of ReadKit. ReadKit was almost as nice, but not quite. I still longed for the keyboard navigation and overall ease of use that I’d grown accustomed to. I kept checking in to see if there was progress, but very little was made public.

I’ve given Black Pixel quite a bit of grief over the past couple of years regarding their treatment of my favorite news app. In my mind it had joined the graveyard of struggling, once amazing, Mac apps along with OmniWeb, VoodooPad and Yojimbo. Apps with personality and history, but unfortunately no future. Apps that couldn’t quite make the transition to the iOS era.

I bought a new license straight away when NetNewsWire 4 was first announced. Then there were a few betas, few and far between, followed by a long period of silence. I assumed that the app was not considered profitable or important enough to warrant serious development time. Perhaps Black Pixel considered the purchase of NetNewsWire a mistake, and were happy to brush it under the table and forget. I don’t know. As far as I know that may well be the case, but today I’m running the final released version of NetNewsWire 4, complete with a custom syncing backend and a brand new iOS app.

NetNewsWire 4 feels like a return to NetNewsWire Lite. It lacks the power user features of the old pro version, like custom article styles, but it’s still snappy and responsive. I can still breeze through feeds using the arrow keys, and NetNewsWire still gives me a beautifully subtle highlight that flows through the selected feed when I hit the right arrow to open an article in Safari. Nothing else has ever felt quite right.

Quite a bit has been said about the loss of features in the new version, including wondering just who this app is aimed at. Obviously, it was aimed at me. Well, or someone like me who sees the app for what it is. A rewrite of a legacy system that drops both features and cruft to pour a new foundation to build on. NetNewsWire 4 is simple, but I doubt NetNewsWire 5 will be. Now that they have the base application solid, I hope that Black Pixel will be able to add back in the features missing from version three.

All in all I’m very happy with the few days I’ve spent with NetNewsWire 4. I don’t have anything to say about the iOS version just yet, other than to say that like it’s older brother on the Mac, iOS feels like a new start. With a solid syncing engine, a refined reading experience, and a companion iOS app, NetNewsWire has me wondering if I shouldn’t go check back on some other old favorites.