Since Bloglines is shutting down on November 1, I thought it might be a good time to recount how I joined the (nascent) Google Reader team thanks to a Greasmonkey script built on top of Bloglines.
It was the spring of 2005. I had switched from NetNewsWire to Bloglines the previous fall. My initial excitement at being able to get my feed fix anywhere was starting wear off -- Bloglines was held up by some as a Web 2.0 poster child, but the site felt surprisingly primitive compared to contemporary web apps. For example, such a high-volume content consumption product begged for keyboard shortcuts, but the UI was entirely mouse-dependent. I initially started to work on some small scripts to fill in some holes, but fighting with the site's markup was tiring.
I briefly considered building my own feed reader, but actually crawling, storing and serving feed content didn't seem particularly appealing. Then I remembered that Bloglines had released an API a few months prior. The API was meant to be used by desktop apps (NetNewWire, FeedDemon and BlogBot are the initial clients are mentioned in the announcement), but it seemed like it would also work for a web app (the API provided two endpoints, one to get the list subscriptions as OPML, and one to get subscription items as RSS 2.0).
This was also the period when Greasemonkey was really taking off, and I liked the freedom that Greasemonkey scripts provided (piggyback on someone else's site and let them do the hard work, while you can focus on the UI only). However, this was before GM_xmlhttpRequest, so it looked like I'd need a server component regardless, in order to fetch and proxy data from the Bloglines API.
Then, it occurred to me that there was no reason why Greasemonkey had to inject the script into a "real" web page. If I targeted the script at
http://bloglines.com/express (which is a 404) and visited that URL, the code that was injected could make same-origin requests to bloglines.com and have a clean slate to work with, letting me build my own feed reading UI.
Once had the basic framework up and running, it was easy to add features that I had wanted:
- Gmail-inspired keyboard shortcuts.
- Customized per-item actions, for example for finding Technorati and Feedster backlinks, or posting to Del.icio.us (cf. "send to" in Reader).
- Specialized views for del.icio.us and Flickr feeds (cf. photo view in Reader).
- Inline viewing of original page content (including framebuster detection).
A few weeks into this, I saw an email from Steve Goldberg saying that a feed reading project was starting at Google. I got in touch with him about joining the team, and also included a pointer to the script at that state. I don't know if it helped, but it clearly didn't hurt. As it turned out, Chris Wetherell, Jason Shellen, Laurence Gonsalves and Ben Darnell all had (internal) feed reading projects in various states; Reader emerged out of our experiences with all those efforts (Chris has a few more posts about Reader's birth).
Once the Reader effort got off the ground it seemed weird to release a script that was effectively going to be a competitor, so it just sat in my home directory (though Mark Pilgrim did stumble upon it when gathering scripts for Greasemonkey Hacks). However, since Bloglines will only be up for a few more days, I thought I would see if I could resurrect the Greasemonkey script as a Chrome Extension. Happily, it seems to work:
- Install this extension (it requires access to all sites since it needs to scrape data from the original blogs
- Visit http://bloglines.com/listsubs to enter/cache your HTTP Basic Auth credentials for the Bloglines API.
- Visit http://persistent.info/greasemonkey/bloglines-express/ to see your subscriptions (unfortunately I can't inject content into
bloglines.com/expresssince Chrome's "pretty 404" kicks in.
Or if all that is too complicated, here's a screencast demonstrating the basic functionality:
For the curious, I've also archived the original version of the Gresemonkey script (it actually grew to use
GM_xmlhttpRequest over time, so that it could load original pages and extra resources).
Somewhat amusingly, this approach is also roughly what Feedly does today. Though they also have a server-side component, at its core is a Firefox/Chrome/Safari extension that makes Google Reader API requests on behalf of the user and provides an alternative UI.