I've made no secret about my feelings regarding Google's shutdown of its Google Reader ecosystem. Lately, though, I'm starting to feel a lot less pessimistic about the change.
The reason? The evolution of a third-party Reader replacement called Feedly. While my initial impression of Feedly wasn't positive -- in the hours and days following Google's Reader announcement, the service was far less polished and reliable than I expected -- Feedly has come a long way in a short time.
What makes me the most optimistic about Feedly is the fact that its founder seems dead-set on winning users over. Edwin Khodabakchian and his team are working overtime to improve Feedly across all platforms. They're actively soliciting feedback and implementing changes to make the service meet users' needs. Yup -- they're actually listening to the people who use their product. That kind of passion and commitment is something we never saw Google apply to Reader. Reader was great but neglected; Feedly is good and growing fast.
Just this week, Feedly announced a new version of its Web-based application. The update provides a simpler, more visually pleasing interface; more control over the look of your feeds; and a denser, cleaner list view of stories that aims to "make the transition from the Google Reader list view ... as seamless as possible."
Here's what's really interesting: I'm actually finding that Feedly is moving beyond the point of merely catching up with Reader. It's starting to surpass it.
The new Feedly Web app is a joy to use. It's like a sleeker, more polished version of Reader with several new bells and whistles thrown in. (One such example: If your browser window is small, the left-side navigation panel automatically transforms into a floating menu that appears only when you mouse over it, thereby leaving more space for the actual content of your feeds.) It feels like what Reader could have been if Google hadn't given up on it years ago.
Feedly's progress isn't just limited to the desktop, either. I've been testing out a beta version of the company's upcoming update to its Android app, and let me tell you: It's good. Really good. The app features a new text-centric list view of stories along with improved search and a handful of other UI and function-oriented improvements. It's right up there with the top Reader apps available on Android today.
I've also discovered some useful gestures that hadn't previously caught my eye -- things like the ability to short-swipe on a story in list view to mark it as read or long-swipe to mark all visible stories as read. Again, it feels like what Google's own Reader app could have been if its development hadn't stagnated.
Of course, Google Reader was more than just a website and app; it was an ecosystem that numerous third-party programs relied upon to provide their own mobile experiences. Popular Android apps like Press and Reader HD -- and, heck, even Feedly -- use Google Reader's API to sync feeds and keep track of what you've read across multiple devices and platforms.
Feedly, as you've probably heard, is working on its own "clone" of the Google Reader API -- the interface that allows other apps to tap into the ecosystem -- and plans to flip the switch on it once Reader shuts down this July. Feedly's creators say they'll open the API up to third-party developers, which means -- if everything goes as planned -- all of those apps should be able to start using Feedly as a universal syncing solution.
Oh, and one more thing: Feedly is working on a pro version of its product for "people who want more control." In other words: monetization -- you know, the thing that keeps a company in business.
It's too soon to point to any one service as the heir apparent to Google Reader, but Feedly is positioning itself wisely to inherit the throne. And the fact that there are still other players out there is a good thing; it means each contender has to fight to win us over and keep innovating to avoid getting left behind.
Regardless of how things shake out, Feedly's impressive evolution has me feeling confident that the future of RSS-driven news reading is far less bleak than it initially seemed. Only time will tell what broader implications the shutdown of Reader might have on the Web, but in terms of end-user experience, things are moving beyond stable and actually looking exciting for the first time in years.