Firefox 3's feed subscription feature: convenience for the masses or a dangerous precedent?

Google Reader: the missing option

Bug or feature?

There's something about Firefox that's been bugging me for a long time now and, more than being a mere inconvenience, I feel that it is a design decision that Mozilla took that runs counter to the spirit of the web as an open platform.

At first sight, the feature I'm talking about seems harmless enough; useful even. If you have Google Reader set as your feed reader in Firefox, clicking on an RSS feed takes you to the Google Reader "Add to Google" page, giving you the option of adding the feed either to your Google homepage or to Google Reader.

You can alter the feed reader or service you use to subscribe to feeds under Preferences → Applications → Web Feed, but, unfortunately, the choices you are given do not include seeing the raw XML source of the RSS feed.

An option to see the raw XML source of an RSS feed is also not presented in the context-sensitive menu that you can access by clicking on the feed icon (see below).

Firefox Feed Feature Request

The closest option to raw XML in the preferences is the "Preview in Firefox option", which is what Firefox comes with by default. When this option is selected you can view source on the formatted output that Firefox displays by viewing the source of the page. This is good (thanks Terence et. al.), however many people will choose their own feed reader (in my case Google Reader) as their default reader in Firefox and be out of luck when it comes to viewing the source of the feeds.

In some ways, my gripe has more to do with the "Add to Google" page in Google Reader than with Firefox: that page should have a simple link that allows you to see the raw source of the feed you want to view.

As things stand, I feel that Firefox and Google are doing the web a disservice by preventing easy access to the raw XML source for feeds.

The DAMN Fallacy

As a developer, I know that I sometimes have different needs and expectations from the software that I use when compared to non-developers. When I forget this, I usually find myself falling prey to the Developer As everyMaN fallacy (or DAMN). Sometimes, as developers, it is hard for us to remember that the users of our software have different needs to ours. In fact, I blame this DAMN fallacy (and our damn stubbornness) as the root of most usability issues in software. And there's nothing like a little usability testing — even if it is guerilla-style (wink, wink) — to cure this DAMN disease.

However, I don't feel that this is an example of the DAMN fallacy. Instead, I feel that it hints to something a bit more dangerous as tools begin to dumb down the inherently open nature of the Internet in an effort to appeal to mass audiences. The underlying assumption appears to be that to reach a larger base of users, we should treat them as a mass audience of consumers, instead of consumer-producers that are active participants and contributors to the web. Taking that line of thought to its logical conclusion would lead to the AOLization on the World Wide Web — not something I'd ever like to see happen.

Before you think that I am making a mountain out of an anthill, let me try to explain my concerns further.

The importance of View Source

When I first started hacking HTML, I learned a great deal simply by viewing source on web pages. It's no coincidence that I was immensely excited when Flex Builder brought with it the ability to expose the source code for Flex applications. In fact, one of the first things I did was to release a version that did the same thing for ActionScript 3-only projects. And, of course, I made the feature a prominent part of the Flex Quickstart Guides while creating the Quickstarts format on Adobe Developer Connection.

The ability to view the source of any HTML document on the web lies at the heart of its nature as an inherently open system. The same holds true for JavaScript and CSS files, and, until recently, for RSS feeds.

I am worried that this feature in FireFox, coupled with the Google Reader subscription page, effectively hides the source of feeds and is going to hinder an understanding of how RSS and syndication work in a new generation of inquisitive minds. I'm not opposed to making the process of subscribing to feeds easier — quite the contrary, I applaud the effort — however, I do feel that it is of utmost importance that access to the source is provided for people who are interested in peeking under the hood.

To remove the ability to easily access the source of web documents is to lose a fundamental feature of the web and sets a dangerous precedent.

I hope Firefox will implement a simple view source option for RSS feeds and that Google Reader will also expose the the raw XML source of feeds from its feed subscription page.

Have your say!

I'd love to hear your feedback on this. Have you encountered this issue? Do you feel that it's important? Am I making a mountain out of an anthill or do I have valid concerns? Leave a comment and let me know your feelings.

Further reading and resources: