In 2005, two products I used heavily were sold to new owners: the photo hosting service Flickr was sold to Yahoo, and the Mac RSS reader app NetNewswire was sold to NewsGator. Those decisions turned out to be pivotal, and not necessarily to the good; and this year they’re in the process of being undone.
Flickr didn’t exactly reach its full potential under its new owners, Yahoo not being one of the competently run tech giants, and for many years it languished, falling behind its competitors as its parent company died a slow death. Verizon acquired Yahoo last year, and in April of this year SmugMug bought Flickr from Verizon’s Oath subsidiary. Today SmugMug announced some changes to Flickr. Most controversially, the one terabyte of free storage announced in 2013 is coming to an end, and free users are limited to 1,000 photos. This is not a surprise: SmugMug is a small but profitable private company that has never taken VC funding, and they’re not interested in offering a free service to everyone in order to get their personal data; they want to sell services to customers, not customers to advertisers. Which in 2018 is refreshing. Also, they’re small and privately held: they can’t run at a loss. In some ways this is a retreat: they’re not going to even try to compete with the social media networks. But I suspect it’ll make for a better experience, at least for those who pay $50 a year for it, or have fewer than 1,000 photos. Not everything has to scale.
As for NetNewsWire, its development also languished for a while, as ownership passed from NewsGator to Black Pixel in 2011. At a point where most people were consuming RSS feeds via online readers like Google Reader, a desktop app—especially one you paid for—was almost an anachronism, though NetNewsWire always had healthy numbers in my feed stats. (How much of that was myself, though?) RSS itself, however, withered on the vine, as users started getting their news from social media sites rather than newsreader apps or portal pages (a lot of my RSS traffic came from Yahoo, oddly enough), and especially after Google Reader was shut down in 2013.
Version 4 of NetNewswire eventually came out in 2015. It was a commercial product, and I paid for it. But since then it’s been getting increasingly crufty. It keeps unread articles long past the point they disappeared from their RSS feeds, to the point that I now have something like 175,000 unread articles. As you might expect, even on my quad-core 5K iMac, this has an impact on performance: the app regularly pegs a processor core, and the spinning pinwheel of death is a frequent visitor. Whereas the original NetNewsWire was quick and snappy on a G3 iBook. It’s frustrating.
At the end of August, Black Pixel ended support for NetNewsWire sync and transferred the name and intellectual property to Brent Simmons, the original developer of said quick and snappy first version, who is releasing a new version 5.0 of NetNewsWire as a free and open-source app. You can download an early build today: it is, in Brent’s words, “not even alpha” and “barely useable”; it lacks some of the most basic of features (you can’t even drag a feed from one folder to another). But it’s so fast and responsive, compared to NetNewsWire 4.1, that I’ve already switched to it. It may be barely useable, but it at least it doesn’t freeze my computer.
So at least with these two services we’ve come full circle: small, functional and cruft-free services that predated the VC-fed ramp-up to rapacious data collection, invasive advertising and social-media dysfunction are, in the end, still ticking along, and able to find a home in more modest surroundings. They’re living fossils that come from an Internet that was smaller, less resource-intensive and more private. In many ways I miss that Internet.