Later today I'm on a panel at the Evernote conference to discuss the future of "online content consumption." Three very neutral words for a topic that's actually pretty exciting, imho.
But they have to cover a lot of ground because the speakers are from Feedly, Pocket, Evernote, and me -- I guess I'm from RSS. Kind of the elder statesman of the group? Content consumption guy emeritus? It's a role I'm happy to fill.
The big event in this world is the abdication of Google Reader. It leaves a wide space to be filled. It also creates opportunities to add new features to the "content consumption" world, ones that were stopped by lack of interest at Google.
One of the questions our moderator, Rafe Needleman, wants me to address is this: "Do we need to write differently for the modern online, device-using audience?" Maybe this is trick question, and I'm missing the angle, but my answer is an emphatic no! Writing should be done to express an idea from one human mind to another. The minds aren't changed just because you're using a variety of devices to read. The scaling of the content to fit the varying sizes of our devices can all be done in software.
Writing doesn't change, but software design for our writing and reading tools is radically transformed by this process.
We've been having a hell of a time getting our outliner software (used primarily for writing) to work well in a tablet and phone form. The biggest problems are the lack of a keyboard and on the phone the small screen (tablet screens are fine for writing). The virtual-keyboard writing environment is a big step backwards from the richness of the desktop and laptop environment.
For example, until recently I didn't know there was an Undo gesture on iOS (you shake the phone or tablet). Undo was a big innovation in Mac software in 1984, almost 30 years ago, and it's invisibility to users today means you can't rely on it in your design. And there's no good icon for it either. At least Delete has the trashcan. So designing writing software for the mobile environment is still an unsolved problem, and probably will remain that way.
You can do simple notetaking for course, and that's why products like Evernote have been so popular (maybe that's what Rafe was getting at). And you can save a link for later, which is why Pocket works so well. And there's no trouble reading in the mobile environment, making products like Feedly work really well. But writing? Not so easy!
One approach we've used in Fargo is to create an arrow-pad add-on to the keyboard. It's used for navigation and reorganization and works well. But you have to know it's there, and remember to bring it up. Still working on this.
The lesson of Google Reader is that we'll all do better if there is no dominant vendor who captures the whole market and who everyone is forced to use, even if their product doesn't evolve to meet their changing needs.
RSS started with that basic "open" idea, with RSS itself being open to be read or produced by anyone who wanted to use it. It offered a level playing field for bloggers and professionals, and this allowed all kinds of combinations to come about. A lot of the variety in the online world was made possible by all the choices it made available.
But RSS locked down before it was finished. There are still a bunch of remaining unsolved problems. The question is whether today's vendors will fight each other for dominance, or accept that it's going to be a multi-vendor market, and provide an upgraded user experience that's available at all sites, not viewing upgrades to the basic RSS feature set as a competitive advantage.
Based on experience, I wouldn't say it'll go either way. It'll depend on what the goals are for the vendors, and how much they value the freedom of users and writers.