David Johnstone

Alt is a simpler and prettier interface to NewsBlur

June 25, 2013

Like many people, I had a go at creating a feed reader to fill the gap that Google Reader is about to leave. However, rather than building yet another feed reader backend, I have made use of the NewsBlur API and created an alternative interface to NewsBlur, called Alt.

I built this mostly to cater for how I use a feed reader, so it wouldn’t hurt to explain what this is: I get forty or so new items a day between the feeds I follow. I normally check my reader a couple of times a day, and all I ever do (with the very occasional exception) is read through the unread items. Therefore, I’ve created an interface that lets me do this in the simplest way possible.

Upon logging in with your NewsBlur account, you get a list of items that automatically loads more as you scroll down, much like how Google Reader works. If you have a high enough screen, it looks something like this:

As new items are seen (i.e., get to the top of the visible page), they are automatically marked as “read”. They can be “unread” by clicking on the eye icon up the top, next to the date. Keyboard navigation for next/previous is supported with j/k. There is a counter up the top of the page that indicates how many unread items are remaining. Clicking on this brings up the list of subscriptions, and from here it’s possible to view any individual feed or group of feeds (click on a folder name to show all items from that folder, or click on the folder icon to expand the folder). There are controls at the top of the page to show all items (rather than unread), sort by oldest first (rather than newest), and show only headlines (rather than full items). That’s basically all there is to it.

If you’re interested in using it, go to altfeedreader.com.

For what I want, there are many advantages and few disadvantages to only creating a frontend, rather than an entire system. I don’t have complex needs, so I don’t need the backend to do any more than what most backends already do — there’s no point reinventing the wheel if you want it to look the same as the old wheel. Furthermore, by not creating and maintaining a backend, my system has far less moving parts, and this makes my life a lot easier (originally I was planning on making an entire system; I did 90% of it, but never quite finished it, mostly because I decided I didn’t want the responsibility of running it). Finally, it means that if Alt dropped off the face of the earth, it shouldn’t ruin anybodies day, because you can always just go to NewsBlur and use that like nothing happened.

What’s next? It depends on whether or not other people start using this, but the first thing to come would be the ability to add and remove subscriptions, and manage folders. I could handle more of the NewsBlur account life cycle by allowing accounts to be created on this site and importing and exporting OPML files. And I could integrate the site more deeply into the NewsBlur system by supporting the social features (etc.) that NewsBlur has.

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