March 09, 2004

Update on RSS Readers for Palm OS-based PDAs

Back in September I mentioned the BlogPuck/Plucker combination for an offline RSS reader solution for Palm users. Then in October I came across Hand/RSS for Palm OS. Today, PalmInfocenter posted a summary of Palm RSS readers that includes these and a few more such as:

  • Ticker (an RSS news ticker)
  • JPluck X* (a Java-based solution which converts RSS feeds into the Plucker document format, for viewing in the open source Plucker reader), and
  • NewsMac 3 for Mac users (which borrows a page from these Plucker solutions to convert feeds into the iSilo document format).

    *Please note that JPluck X has replaced BlogPuck from the same developer.

It's been disappointing that given the wildfire adoption of RSS feeds all over the planet, there are still only a tiny handful of PDA RSS reader programs available. For my purposes, I prefer a solution which allows content updating via both a HotSync and direct Internet connection for the most flexibility. With cached content stored on the PDA, one can download the latest news headlines and blog summaries for reading when there may not be a Net connection available (e.g., in-flight or if your PDA simply lacks Internet connectivity).

AvantGo is still useful for viewing mainstream sites and as a PDA web browser. However, it's not an RSS reader, and their expensive upfront channel charges for site operators means it naturally excludes feeds from a large number of webmasters and bloggers who can't afford it or don't wish to republish their content into AvantGo's different format. These are some of the reasons why RSS has taken off so well -- cross-platform compatibility and it's already baked into popular blogging systems like Movable Type, TypePad, etc. No extra work required.

Of the solutions listed above, Hand/RSS appears to be the most elegant solution if you are accustomed to a PC-based news aggregator. Yes, several others are free. However, I often marvel how people using $500+ top-end PDAs often balk at a $15 solution if it truly is the most enabling and productive solution. Hand/RSS allows one to update RSS content via either a HotSync with a PC or through a direct Internet connection on your PDA if you have it (e.g., modem, cellular, Wi-Fi, etc.)

If you prefer the open source (read "free") route, then the Palm document reader conversion tools are worth a look -- especially if you already use Plucker (or iSilo for the Mac option above). However, this latter approach has some potential downsides. Take a good look to see if you are limited to updating RSS feeds during a HotSync, which requires a connection to a PC. Unless one also travels with a laptop, a HotSync-only option won't work well for longer trips as your handheld content will remain stagnant. Regardless of the Hand/RSS vs. open source choice, you'll also want to make sure it includes a feature for automatically expiring content. Otherwise, you'll need to waste unproductive time with manual content maintenance on your PDA. Hand/RSS nicely includes several choices for hiding or deleting content to give you even more control.

Lastly, if you are fortunate to have a PDA with a modem or wireless connectivity, another option is using a web-based news aggregator service to view updated content. One of the advantages is that you don't have to maintain separate news feed subscriptions between your PC-based aggregator and your handheld program. If you have multiple PCs, then a web-based aggregator makes even more sense. Since all your subscription information is maintained on the web site, you get the same feed subscriptions wherever you go, through whatever browser and Net connection is available.

However, there's a downside to web-based aggregators when viewed on PDAs. While some next-gen PDA web browsers finally support active content like javascript, others do not. So what may work beautifully on your PC's browser may be inaccessible or somewhat crippled on the PDA. Thus you'll definitely need to test your particular PDA web browser with the aggregator site well before leaving on that trip -- just to make sure they're compatible.

Another issue is the Great RSS vs. Atom syndication format debate (with additional discussion and observations). All of the above solutions should support RSS feeds, but Atom is relatively new. For example, JPluck X supports Atom feeds, but Atom support is nowhere to be found in Hand/RSS' online documentation or version history notes. Thus if you normally subscribe to an online source that only provides Atom feeds (e.g., Google's revamped Blogger offerings), this is yet another issue for consideration.

Overall, at least there's been some progress. A year ago, there were virtually no "easy" RSS solutions for PDAs short of hacking together your own -- which required a much higher level of tech savvy. However, compared to the glut of Palm program offerings in other categories, and the wide variety of news aggregator programs for PCs, this is still a very small range of solutions for avid Palm users, sad to say. The good news is that we have several options now.

I'd love to hear from fellow PDA users who've taken the plunge and access RSS feeds from their handhelds: What are you using, and why? How has it met your particular needs? All constructive comments welcomed.

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard