April 04, 2008

Fav.or.it Beta Effort is Not My Favorite. Not Even Close.

Sometimes the concept behind a new service ends up being much better than the actual experience. And try as I might to find out what it is I'm missing about a "good on paper" product, it occasionally happens that holes in the product, a confusing user interface, or a smattering of bugs can get in the way of recognizing its true potential. Unfortunately, so far my experience with Fav.or.it, a new next generation RSS feed reader, has been one disappointment after another, taking what should be an evolutionary step in the way we share data and interoperate with feeds and instead, throwing roadblocks and confusing processes that will surely thwart the site's ability to attract significant users.

I first became excited about Fav.or.it's potential to compete with Google Reader after seeing Robert Scoble's initial gushing back in December. The concept behind Fav.or.it sounds wonderful - offering a fully-developed RSS feed reader with a river of news interface, integrated commenting which feeds back to the originating blog, and a detailed directory of blogs, from technology to news and even sports.

When Fav.or.it opened its public beta in late February, I was excited to see that blogs with Disqus could integrate comments. Also promising attention data and a full API, it seemed the service would be well on its way to being a serious challenger.

But from day one, I've had issues getting Fav.or.it to even function at a basic level. I'm no stranger to beta products with raw edges or underbaked features, but trying to figure out Fav.or.it, or get the service to even find my RSS subscriptions has been one headache after another - one major reason I'd held off discussing Fav.or.it until now, hoping I was just missing something.

In March, I traded e-mails with Fav.or.it founder Nick Halstead, saying it didn't seem "100% transparent to me", and he mentioned having "teething problems" common to any new site, so again, I figured the site would eventually come around. But it hasn't yet been the case.

Fav.or.it choked on my Google Reader OPML every time.

The very first step to creating a service that can compete with Google Reader is enabling simple OPML import to get the feeds I read today into another system. Fav.or.it makes me think it would be easy, but every time I would upload my Google Reader subscription list, I was told the data was in the wrong format - nothing more. Just a failure. There was also the option to add URLs one by one, so I tried that, adding a handful of my favorite sites. Only then did I see a warning that Fav.or.it was only allowing upwards of 25 feeds to be added, less than 5 percent of what Google Reader is handling today for me.

Everywhere I turned, more limits and warnings...

Even nuttier, I was met with warnings when I imported my sites, being told every feed I added would be available to the community at large, not just to me. Further, I was told I couldn't upload feed mashups, Non-English feeds, Spam, Shopping or Porn. While I hadn't planned to do so, the feeling within Fav.or.it was extremely hostile, without the feelings of security you get in Google Reader or other feed readers.

Fav.or.it also wasn't very bright as to handling the few sites I did put in by hand. I had provided upwards of a dozen unique feed URLs, of which half were from FeedBurner. Fav.or.it tried to resolve the feeds, and lumped all those that started with "http://feeds.feedburner.com/" as one single feed. Obviously, that didn't work, so I saw the dozen I tried to put in quickly whittled down to about five. And in contrast to the near-instant adding of feeds to Google Reader, Toluu, Shyftr or AssetBar, Fav.or.it showed a lengthy progress bar, testing my patience.

Slowly, but surely, Fav.or.it managed to import one feed...

But, eventually they did import, and I could add these new feeds to what Fav.or.it calls a "slice". I can view the RSS feeds, in river view, and even see integrated comments for those who use Disqus. One of the major selling points of Fav.or.it has been the ability to defragment the conversation and bring comments back to the original blog.

Fav.or.it in action, showing comments in line...

But while that's nice, and noble, it certainly couldn't overcome the interface oddities I seemingly encountered at every turn. My slice "Tech Blogs" was marked with a number of 1110, with no seeming rhyme or reason, and clicking the 1110 showed Twitter, del.icio.us or send to a friend, without any indication of what clicking those items would do. Clicking the first two items gave me a checkmark, but no action.

What fav.or.it does bring to the table is a detailed blog directory, organized by humans, into categories, much like Jason Calacanis' Mahalo. But for me, I'm not all that interested in finding new sites for Drink, Spirituality, Government and Weather, among the options shown. For an RSS feeder really to blow me away, I need to be able to read my feeds, and take action. On Google Reader, that action is sharing or e-mailing. On AssetBar, that action is sharing, talking with others or rating an item. On FriendFeed and Yokway, it's commenting and liking or giving stars. But while fav.or.it does enable comments back to the blog, unlike the other services, who delivered on their core mission, they never gave me what I really wanted in the first place, a solid feed reader that could handle more than 25 feeds.

Help! Wait... there is no help.

And if that wasn't bad enough, when I finally gave up and went looking for help, giving in to the possibility I'm such a tech dummy that I was missing the obvious, I clicked through to the Frequently Asked Questions area (FAQ). Sure enough, it was blank.

So I guess nobody has any questions. But I sure do - how can you take a service with such good design, slap on so many features that sound compelling, and then reverse optimize it so I'm completely incapable of using it? I'm typically fairly forgiving for well-intended entrepreneurs that are working hard on what could be excellent products, but things have to change dramatically for me to give fav.or.it another run. I need to get all my Google Reader feeds into the system. And the system needs to be ready for people to use it, not for people to be stuck due to its many limitations.