February 09, 2003


James Robertson pointed me to BottomFeeder - another free news aggregator currently on the market. The interesting part about BottomFeeder is that it is written in Smalltalk, which is not quite a common language nowadays. BottomFeeder is cross-platform, running even on such exotic systems as HP/UX and SGI - but that is also its main downside. It is not too hard to create a cross-platform UI toolkit, but it's much harder to create one which obeys all the UI conventions on all the platforms which it supports.

So, here is the log of my experiences with BottomFeeder. Sorry if I'm being too harsh in some places. But in fact, I'm trying to hold myself to the same standards when doing Syndirella development. If there are any similar problems with the Syndirella UI, feel free to tell me about those - and feel free to sound as harsh as you like. :-)

First, the download is quite large - more than 5 megabytes. On one hand, the .NET Framework is four times bigger, but on the other hand, you need to download it only once, and not with every update of Syndirella. Does Cincom Smalltalk have a way to separate the application from its runtime?

OK, it starts with no problems. I take a look through the menus... well, quite a lot of options here. I wonder who would need to use all the four kinds of "save settings" and "restore settings" commands... shouldn't this be done automatically and transparently for the user?

Looks like BottomFeeder supports OCS, so bringing in my subscriptions from Syndirella should not be a problem. I export the OCS file from Syndirella, go to BottomFeeder, right-click the "Feed Lists" icon and select "Add Feedlist..." Oops... it prompts me for an URL, but I want to import from a local file. After some guessing, I make the file:/// URL for my feed list, switch to BottomFeeder and press Shift-Ins to paste it to the dialog. Oops... nothing happens. They did implement the standard edit box popup menu, but forgot about the shortcuts.

OK, I paste the URL anyway... "Unable to process feed!". Let's see what went wrong. I go to Help / View Current Error Log... and see a non-resizable window with no horizontal scrolling. Do I have to export the log to a file, so that I could read the complete messages? Anyway, it's clear that probably I need a real http: URL, not a file one.

I put the OCS file to my local webserver and enter the real URL. OK, now it shows a feed list with 45 feeds.

First thing I see: it fails miserably to process Cyrillic feeds. Only squares instead of Russian letters. So I wouldn't be able to use BottomFeeder even if I wanted to.

Next impression: it shows "(rss0.91)" after all the feeds. Why do the users care? Wouldn't it make more sense to show the unread item count, or some other useful information?

The list of items is quite inefficient in its use of the screen real estate. Why all the borders and padding? Why is the "Item Title" column by default wider than the pane containing the item list? Also, this may be subjective, but I do not think that it's really important to waste some more screen space on the latest update dates.

(Update: There is an option not to show the table, but that hides the item dates. Quite a typical thing - instead of implementing one good behavior, the author allows the user to choose which of several bad behaviors is less bad than the others.)

The HTML browser is more or less OK... but the cursor doesn't change when pointing to a link. At least it does show a tooltip with the link destination. All the links are opened in the external browser, but looks like it is not determined quite correctly. My default browser is NetCaptor, but BottomFeeder opens new IE windows instead of new NetCaptor tabs.

(Update: There is an option to do all the browsing in BottomFeeder, but it's quite hard to do any kind of browsing with no Back button and no popup menu to replace it.)

Out of habit, I tried to press Space... of course, it doesn't move to the next unread item, but it does something strange instead - it just removes the focus from the selected item and clears the item text pane. Pressing Space again brings the focus back. Why is that needed?

Clicking on a feed which is not yet loaded produces no feedback on what the program is doing. If the feed is slow to load, it may seem that the program has hung, or something.

Even though I am a developer of an RSS reader myself, I don't understand what is "Run Server Interface for Feed Gathering", why is that different from "Run Server Interfaces Compatible with Other Tools", with what other tools it is compatible, and why one checkbox is checked by default and the other one is not. And there is no help or anything to guide me.

(Update: No, there is actually a help file, and a description of these settings. I wonder why the authors created yet another standard for subscription icons, and did not stick to using the Radio standard. Just think of how many icons each weblog would need to have if every single aggregator invented its own subscription standard.)

The "Apply" and "Close" buttons in the settings dialog are located on different sides of the dialog. Is it an UI standard on some platform? On the platforms which I have experience with, the standard recommends placing the buttons next to each other.

The content:encoded RSS element is not supported, so on many feeds I see only excepts instead of full item texts. And for dive into mark, I see nothing at all. The error log shows some XML parsing error, but I can't see the full error text, so I don't know what's the problem with that.

So, I could continue for a while more, but I think it's enough for now. :-) And even functionally, BottomFeeder doesn't have many advantages to Syndirella. It does have a tree view of the feeds, it does sort the feeds by name, it does have a preference for automatically following links in items with empty descriptions, but that's about it. And it doesn't even support RSS autodiscovery.

Sorry again if I'm being too harsh, and I do hope that the BottomFeeder authors will be able to correct most of the problems that I've complained about. But for now - well, see for yourself. :-)

Posted by yole at February 9, 2003 11:15 AM | TrackBack

In a previous entry you wrote about some crashes do to the fact when starting the app up in systray mode.
I'll really like to start the app in systray mode but I can't find a single place how to do that. Please inform me please :-)

Posted by: Mattias on February 9, 2003 02:26 PM

"...but looks like it is not determined quite correctly. My default browser is NetCaptor, but BottomFeeder opens new IE windows instead of new NetCaptor tabs."

Syndirella makes the same error. My default browser is either NN or Moz (depending on how courageous I'm feeling), but Syndirella insists on opening new IE windows.

Am I missing something obvious?

Posted by: James Duff on February 9, 2003 06:05 PM

James: Is your browser registered correctly? There is no single concept of "default browser" under Windows - there are several things (URLs, extensions) with which the browser can be associated, and it's quite common that a browser grabs some associations and not the others.

A quick way to check is to click "Run..." in the Start menu and enter a URL, like "http://yole.ru". If this opens IE for you, so will Syndirella.

Posted by: Dmitry Jemerov on February 10, 2003 10:20 AM

James: are you shift-clicking?

Set your prefs to "open in a new window", and single-click. If you shift-click, the IE instance that is running inside Syndirella will think it should start a new IE window, rather than using your default browser.

Posted by: Joe Hildebrand on February 10, 2003 10:39 AM

My browser is registered correctly.

OK, setting preferences to "open in a new window" allows me to single click and open in a new window. But this is not really what I'm after.

Most of the time I use the internal browser in Syndirella. This is one of the program's advantages. However, I would like to be able to right click a link and "Open in new window" using my default browser.

Is this possible?

Posted by: James Duff on February 10, 2003 07:51 PM

James: Maybe it is. I'll have to investigate that.

Posted by: Dmitry Jemerov on February 12, 2003 01:07 AM

I tried Bottomfeeder before I use Syndir. I could not get Bottomfeeder to event start in Window98se. Upon startup, it gave me an error notice stating that it cannot not find a folder "appl" in its directory (even the folder did exist, in the right place). I posted to its forum about the problem and never got an answer. And as far as I know, I am not the only one who cannot get Bottomfeeder to work on Window smoothly.

Posted by: rlrl on April 19, 2003 10:45 PM
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