| projects | articles | photos | about

WebRunner or How Google Reader became my main RSS aggregator

The BookI’m an RSS junkie. I go over nearly 200 feeds every day – news, industry updates, my friends’ blogs, flickr photos and so on. That’s why my RSS reader has become the second most important application for me, after the browser.

The problem

I used SharpReader and RSS Bandit and encountered very similar problem with both of them. Once the number of feed items starts to grow (I hate deleting old items), so does the memory and CPU consumption. Last time I looked before uninstalling, my SharpReader used 800Mb of memory. RSSBandit would use 100% CPU for minutes…

Additionally, because I use at least 3 computers almost daily (home/office/laptop) – synchronizing my feeds between all of them was very cumbersome, if not impossible with these apps.

Google Reader? A few problems still…

Enter Web based RSS readers. I tried both Bloglines and Google Reader in the past, but something in their interface just wasn’t working for me. The latest version of Google Reader introduced a truly convenient Web RSS reading experience but I still couldn’t use it. Why? Here’re several reasons:

  • Developing, testing and installing extensions requires constant browser restarts. Having to open Google Reader each and every time is just not very convenient
  • Having Google Reader open requires being logged in with my Google login. This has several downsides – first, I often use different logins for different Google apps – Gmail, Analytics and so on – and logging in with a different user in some Google app kills the Google Reader login as well. Then there is the privacy concern – I search using Google tens if not hundreds times a day, and I just prefer to do it while not being logged in with my Google credentials. Being logged in into Google Reader obviously means I’m logged in when searching and basically everywhere.

The solution

To solve this problem I thought about ways I could create two separate ‘spaces’ – one would be my browser space in which I could be logged out from Google and periodically log-in into various Google apps, and a ‘Google Reader’ space in which I would be constantly logged in into Google Reader.

It occurred to me that XulRunner would be a perfect candidate for this. I thought about creating some custom solution using XulRunner, but then remembered that Mark Finkle has already created something very similar – WebRunner. Basically, it’s a ‘Site Specific Browser’ a simple XULRunner program that displays a single Web application in a simplified interface.

Here’re a few advantages of using Google Reader in WebRunner:

  • Completely solves Google login problems and my privacy concerns. I’m always logged in into Google Reader in WebRunner, and logged out in my Firefox
  • WebRunner being a separate process means that my Google Reader is always running like a regular desktop application, and obviously survives browser restarts
  • It has minimal UI that fits perfectly for Google Reader and similar Web apps – there is no need for ‘back/forward’ buttons, browser toolbars and so on. So almost all the screen real-estate is allocated to the Web app, and there is no unneeded and distracting UI elements

So, with the help of WebRunner and XulRunner, Google Reader has become my main RSS Reader. I get all the advantages of a desktop RSS reader and all the conveniences of a Web app – synchronization across machines, performance, storage and so on.

A few quirks

There are still a few disadvantages to using Google Reader over a desktop RSS reader:

  • No ‘new items’ alerts. Desktop readers can show an alert window once new items are published. While there are extensions that can accomplish something similar with Google Reader, their functionality is still fairly limited.
  • No search – I know, this is very ironic, but Google Reader still has no search functionality that would allow me to search within feeds.
  • New item delays – it can take Google Reader several hours to display new items after they are published. I really hope Google would solve this one.


Overall, I’m really enjoying my transition to Google Reader and would really recommend checking out WebRunner for this.

9 Responses to “WebRunner or How Google Reader became my main RSS aggregator”

  1. Kfir Pravda Says:

    why not using Netvibes?

  2. Iosart Says:

    @Kfir – I think Netvibes RSS reader interface is good for casual reading, but for massive RSS consumption (~200 feeds) it’s not very convenient IMHO.

    Do you have each feed as a separate module?

  3. Julien Says:

    Well, I use NetVibes, got twelve tabs, and around 1125 news to read everyday… Big problem with Google is really to be logged in (I got five Google accounts…). & I don’t use desktop reader.
    Another problem : WebRunner is PC-only. Maybe waiting for a Mac version ? & then I could try…

  4. youen Says:


    I am also a RSS addict and I will use this solution.

    By the way do you know how to set up a proxy to webrunner ?

  5. Iosart Says:

    @Julien – maybe you can ask Mark Finkle from Mozilla whether he plans to release a Mac WebRunner….

  6. Iosart Says:

    @youen: follow these steps to setup a proxy in WebRunner:
    1. Edit WebRunner prefs file. Typically, you’ll find it in:
    C:\Program Files\WebRunner\defaults\preferences\webrunner-prefs.js

    2. Add the following lines to this file:

    pref(“network.proxy.http”, “YOUR_PROXY_SERVER”);
    pref(“network.proxy.http_port”, YOUR_PROXY_SERVER_PORT);
    pref(“network.proxy.type”, 1);

    3. Edit the lines you added with your proxy server and port

    Hope this helps :)

  7. Mukunda Modell Says:

    I have built a Mac version of WebRunner which you can find at

  8. Vadim Says:

    If you use WebRunner, you should really check Bubbles —

  9. zhou Says:

    Alex, would you release you bundle, say greader.webapp, for download? It’s convenient for other webrunner users. :-)