May 2008


The frenzy of Snackr downloading seems to be slowing down at last, but with more than 5250 downloads (and 500 mostly positive tweets on Twitter, including a plug by @scobleizer), I have to admit that I’m greatly surprised at how much interest there’s been. Frankly, I assumed Snackr would only appeal to a very small number of people; I figured most people would look at it and say “Huh? Why would I want this thing crawling across my screen?” (as, indeed, a number of people have).

After reading through a lot of the tweets and blog posts about Snackr, it seems to me that different people like different things about it. Some people like the design; others like the “up-to-the-minute” feel it gives (somewhat illusory, since it currently only updates each feed every 45 minutes for politeness); others are simply mesmerized by the crawl.

But I think the core of what a lot of people like about it is the same reason I built it originally: the randomness factor. It’s the idea that you don’t have to actually force yourself to keep up with every single thing on every feed, because you don’t have time to do that anyway; you can just sample. It’s very liberating, and it leads you to read items from feeds you don’t normally look at that often.

(Not everybody agrees with this idea; I’ve seen a number of tweets from people saying they didn’t think Snackr would work well if you have a lot of feeds, suggesting that they really want to read everything. In my view, Snackr doesn’t work well unless you have a lot of feeds; if you don’t have much to read, it would just scroll the same stuff by over and over again. But some people do seem to be interested in using it that way.)

Of course, the randomness could be decoupled from the ticker-style presentation; normal blog readers could easily implement a “pick random recent stuff for me” as well (in fact, I’m kind of surprised that popular readers like Google Reader and Bloglines don’t already have this). One of the early tweets about Snackr said “it’s almost what I want: a twhirl-like RSS reader” (twhirl is a popular Twitter client, also built with AIR). I didn’t quite get that at first–wouldn’t that just be like a normal blog reader? But it occurred to me that what he meant was that it would always feel like a mix of new stuff was showing up on top.

That idea, combined with the fact that there are definitely a lot of people turned off by the constant crawl of the ticker (and the lack of ability to control it directly), made me think that it would be worth adding a non-ticker mode to Snackr–a manually-scrollable list of items that would update itself every few minutes. It would still randomly sample feeds the same way the ticker does; it just wouldn’t distract you with constant motion.

This mode would probably be useful for other reasons as well. For example, I’ve started implementing a “star” button on items, so you can mark items you want to keep around to read later. I was originally thinking that when you wanted to read your starred items, Snackr would just switch to showing only starred items in the ticker. But it occurred to me that you might also just want a list of all your starred items that you could manually scroll through. Having a non-ticker mode would fulfill that need.

Anyway, since I have an actual day job (remember Thermo?), I probably won’t get to this immediately. (Not to mention the tons of other great suggestions and bug reports I’ve been getting.) But now that so many people are using it, I have a lot of incentive to keep improving it! Of course, people might tire of it quickly–it’ll be interesting to see how many people are still running Snackr a month down the road.

Now, if I’d only figured out a way to get ads into it…

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This is basically just an official repost of the test build I posted earlier, with better support for non-Western character sets and multiple select in the feed list so you can delete a bunch of feeds at once; see the release notes for more detail. Snackr should automatically offer to download the update next time you run it (or if you leave it running long enough); if that doesn’t seem to work, download it directly from http://snackr.net/. Please let me know if you have any problems!

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2500 downloads and counting! The Power of the Intar-Webz[tm] never ceases to amaze me. I remember way back in the Old Days, when freeware was only to be had by floppy disk or modem; back then, it was difficult to imagine a few dozen people, let alone thousands, using some random software you’d put out. Nowadays, between blogs and twitter, word seems to spread like wildfire.

So, just for grins, I decided to start a Snackr twitter account. Follow snackr on twitter to get up-to-the-minute news about test builds, new releases, and what I’m having for lunch.

Web 2.0-ness aside, I’ve also put up a test build of Snackr, version 0.31, that should properly display non-Western characters, and fixes a couple of other bugs (including adding multi-select in the feed list, so you can delete a bunch of feeds at once). If you read this post, I’d appreciate it if you’d install it and try it out, and let me know if it seems to be working for you.

I’ll probably fix a few more bugs before making a new official build, which will arrive through the standard autoupdate mechanism; if you install this test build manually, you should still get the next official build when I put it up.

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Wow–nearly 600 people have downloaded Snackr in the last two days! Thanks to everyone who’s sent mail or posted comments; it’s great to know people like it. The most common requests so far seem to be:

  • Allow multiple selection in the feed list, so you can delete a bunch of feeds at once. It seems like a lot of people imported large feed lists from their existing blog readers, then realized they didn’t want to actually see all of those feeds in Snackr.
  • Support Asian language characters. Currently, Snackr uses Myriad Web, and the font is embedded in order to make fade animations work properly for text, but that font only has Latin characters. I’ll either need to add an option to use the system font (and turn off fade animations), or maybe build a version that embeds a font with Asian characters in it (though that would probably lead to a huge installer).
  • Ability to keep a list of items to read later (e.g. by starring them). I’ve been wanting this for awhile but haven’t gotten around to implementing it yet–now I have some incentive!
  • Posting the source. I do really want to do this, but I need to set aside some time to make the code slightly less embarrassing 🙂

I also noticed today as I was using it on my machine that for some short posts, the popup seems to “bobble around” a bit and end up at a very thin size (it’s different from the jittery animation on Vista/Linux; this is happening even on OS X). It’s intermittent, but it reproduces pretty regularly on certain kinds of posts. Has anybody else seen this? I’ll have to look into it–it must be a recent injection, as I never noticed it before.

I’m planning to make regular updates to Snackr, though things are pretty busy; I’m hoping I can carve out enough time to release a new version in a couple of weeks. Snackr should automatically notify you when an update is available.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

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I realized a few months ago that, unlike pretty much everyone else I know, I don’t regularly use an RSS reader. Not that I haven’t tried—I used FeedDemon early on, and more recently tried out Google Reader—but never managed to form the habit of checking them regularly. Both of them are fine apps; the problem was with me. Every time I sat down and saw that I had a gazillion unread items in my hundreds of feeds, I didn’t know where to start. Eventually I just gave up trying to keep up.

Around the same time I came to this realization, Adobe AIR 1.0 was publicly released. I wanted to try to write an AIR app just for fun, and it occurred to me that I might be able to make something that would solve my RSS problem.

The result is Snackr, a ticker-like widget that lives on the bottom (or side) of your screen and scrolls random items from your RSS feeds. (It’s called “Snackr” because it lets you nibble on your feeds. Guffaw.) Here’s what it looks like on my desktop:

I’m actually finding Snackr really useful—it helps me keep up with blogs I want to keep up with, and also gives me a great smattering of items from sources I wouldn’t normally read regularly. Please try it out and let me know if you like it! (Of course, it’s still an alpha, so please expect bugs; there’s a list of known issues on the Snackr website.)

Snackr has also been really fun to write, and along the way I figured out some tips and tricks for doing various things with Flex and AIR. Some notes on that after the jump.

(more…)

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From a web application I recently used that shall remain nameless:

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