Elytra Blog

The simple RSS Reader. This blog publishes release notes, engineering and design details.

A lot of Unread Articles

If you launch the app or open the web app (if you have access) and notice a sudden surge of unread articles waiting for you, I can explain.

Traditionally, to check if an article is unique and new, I checked its GUID which the feed provides and checked if it already exists in Elytra’s database. This works fine if there is only one source for an RSS feed. It breaks when there are multiple sources for a single website. This happens when say I subscribe to a Website’s XML Feed and someone else subscribes to its JSON Feed. Both sources are valid, but both bring in articles with the same content and GUID. So the articles would map only to the first feed. The second feed would never get new articles. 

To solve this problem, I just updated my unique constraint to also use the Feed’s unique ID. The new unique pair constraint of GUID-FeedID works for all feeds from a single website, irrespective of which source the user subscribes too. 

This caused a huge surge in unread articles for all users. I do apologise for having overlooked this issue, but on the bright side: We all have a bunch of articles to read over the weekend which we missed out on, no thanks to me. 

Summer 2020 Update

The Summer 2020 update is here. If you feel generous and have a couple of minutes, please leave a review on the App Store. It makes a huge difference for me. Thank you in advance. Here’s the full change log:

New

  • Support for Mouse/Pointer Interactions on iPadOS 13.4.
  • New Custom Feed: Today. All articles from the day, read and unread. Sort by your own preference.
  • Now add Youtube Channel RSS Feeds directly from the Share Extension.
  • Article Reader Customisation: You can now customise your reading experience based on your personal preferences. Set line heights, font sizes and individual fonts for paragraphs and headings.

Improvements

  • Improvements for handling Youtube URLs inside the app when adding a new channel feed.
  • Push Notifications will now show richer previews if you open them in context.
  • Show refresh control animation when the app loads and is loading Feeds data from the API.
  • GIFs will now show the first frame if the Image Proxy is enabled.

Fixes

  • Fixed incorrect paragraph line-spacing calculation with the selected value for font size.
  • Fixed an issue where opening a push notification on iPads would open them in the primary column.
  • When you tap on a push notification while another article is open from a Feed, the Feed now correctly deselects the active article.
  • When you tap on a push notification, the app sets up correctly on the iPad. If you tap on a Feed after this, it no longer dismisses the previously opened Article.
  • Fixed a crash when creating a new Folder for the first time.
  • Fixed GIF playback.
  • Fixed an issue where an article would remain marked as Read even after opening it.
  • Fixed font sizes for the Feed description on iPads.
  • Fixed a type bug on the iPad where the font sizes were comically large for titles.

Spring 2020 Supplementary Update

Youtube is very wide, densely spread content aggregation service which almost every single one of us has used at least once. Youtube has supported RSS Feeds for channels for a while now; for as long as I can remember actually. Although, it makes it very hard to find and subscribe to them. There is no direct option to do so. 

Until recently, I traversed a channel’s homepage and realised that Youtube advertises these links, like any good citizen of the WWW should. So now when you enter your favourite channel’s URL in Elytra, the app will automatically fetch the RSS Feed URL for you and add it to your account. 

I’ve further programmed Elytra to know the 3 varieties of the URLs Youtube uses for channels and handle all of them gracefully. I’ve personally configured mine to all go inside a Youtube folder so I can tap on the folder to view its custom feed and go through all published videos. 

In v1.6, I also updated how Youtube videos are handled in the app. It now uses the HLS stream which automatically configures the player based on your device settings like Low Power Mode, Low Data Mode, and the like. So it’s very energy efficient compared to opening the main stream or embedding in a web view. 

Unfortunately, Youtube does not support WebPush/PubSubHubBub on these feeds yet, and I doubt they ever will. 

If you need to import all your channels, you can follow Google’s support documentation which can be found here

As always, if you like the app, please take a moment and rate it on the App Store. It helps the app and me a lot. Happy Reading.

2019 – Year in Review

2019 has been Elytra’s first full year in Production. It has since gone from v1.1 to v1.5 with work having begun on v1.6 before I left for a small vacation (following my wedding) in December. 

Over this year, Elytra’s UI has evolved significantly and with the v1.6 changes, it is about to become a whole lot better. Here are some quick stats over the year, reflecting on how Elytra has grown: 

  • New Feeds: 2K+
  • New Articles: 5M+
  • New Users with Push Notifications Enabled: 700+
  • Average Unique Articles read every day: 100+
  • Average Unique Users active every day: 100+

To put these numbers into perspective: 

  • New Feeds YoY Change: + 1666.67%
  • New Articles YoY Increase: + 312.5%
  • New Users with Notifications Enabled YoY Change: + 8750% 
  • Average Unique Articles YoY Change: +850%
  • Average Unique Users YoY Change: +1800%

I also managed to reduce Elytra’s Monthly server bill by 15% by optimising certain parts of the code while improving processing speeds. Once I get that figure down to approximately 40-50% (or revenue increases which bridges the gap), I hope to pass on the savings to Elytra’s users and finally introduce the Free Tier. 

I wish you all a very Happy New Year. May all your plans for the new year succeed.  

Elytra Winter 2019 Update

Winter is coming… soon. The Elytra Winter 2019 update is already here though. If you feel generous and have a couple of minutes, please leave a review on the App Store. It makes a huge difference for me. Thank you in advance. Here’s the change log:

iOS App

What’s New

Elytra's Updated Sign In Interface

New Push Notifications Interface

New Image Viewer Interface

  • Added a new Bookmarks Manager. This is much more efficient system compared to the previous system and is much more scalable. This is a non-UI update so you’ll see a lot of performance benefits from this.
  • Sign in With Apple. If you’re new to Elytra, you don’t need to take any additional steps. If you’ve been using Elytra and are updating to the latest version, please head over to Settings > Account and link your account from there.
  • Image Viewer: Tap on an image in an article to open it in a full screen image viewer. All images from the article are gathered in single place for easier viewing.
  • Push Settings: View a list of publishers you’ve subscribed to receive push notifications from.
  • Added Settings Sync to work in tandem with the web app. More on this soon.

Improvements

  • Adding a new feed from the search interface now increments the unread count.
  • Removing a feed now decrements the unread count.
  • Recommendations interface now correctly shows the custom Feed name if one is set.
  • Improves how the app handles & reacts to memory pressure warnings from the OS.
  • The Author Interface now shows the author’s name prominently and defers the blog’s name to the subtitle.
  • Drastically improved managing of unread counts in the app.
  • Improved behaviour of the app when marking backdated articles as read.

Fixes

  • Fixes push notifications opening the wrong feed.
  • Fixes push notifications not opening the article on iOS 13.
  • Fixed a bug where the app would re-sync all bookmarks even if they existed locally.
  • Fixed the Settings icon for the Push Notifications row not showing up on some devices.
  • Fixed the activity indicator persisting on screen when only one or no page exists for unread items.
  • Fixed a potential crash when opening new feed interface.
  • Fixes loading of unsupported image formats. Loading an SVG image would cause the app to crash.
  • Fixed last updated date not matching the actual refresh date when manually refreshing through the User Interface. This only updated when fetching via background refresh.
  • Fixed an issue that would cause a corrupted navigation bar in iOS 13.
  • Fixes a crash which could occur when the Trial Interface was presented.
  • Fixed linked images which would not render if they were contained inside an anchor blog with multiple other elements. These other elements were usually line-breaks preventing the entire block from rendering properly. Affected blog: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal..
  • Removed webp support.
  • Images are loaded using the same extension from the proxy as the source image.
  • Fixed a small bug with the unread count when marking read automatically from the article reader.
  • Fixed an issue with image loading preferences. “Never Load Images” now works properly in the Articles List & Article Viewer.
  • Fixed some really nasty memory leaks.
  • Fixed a crash that would occur when launching the app. This was a regression introduced in Build 275 of Elytra and OS 13.1.2.
  • Micro.blog posts with images now show the image as a thumbnail in the articles list when settings are enabled for it.
  • Fixed the colour of the summary label (iOS 13 only, correct on iOS 12).

API

I have been discussing with a few developers across platforms to open Elytra’s API to them so they can also build apps on top of it. I hope this takes off because that’ll mean more and more apps will be using a more private and secure way to read their favourite RSS Feeds. 

Other than that, I have made some significant changes to the API and RSS Feed Poller in this update. Here’s a quick change log of things which affects us as Elytra’s Users:

  • The RSS Feed Poller now fetches more frequently and now fully complies with all HTTP caching mechanisms. Previously I only used ETags to know if a feed document was fresh or stale. But this sometimes resulted in unnecessary requests. If a Feed now tells that the content is to be considered fresh for a day, that will be respected. 
  • Improved the WebSub protocol support. If you write on your own blog, I urge that you check if whatever engine runs your blog supports WebSub. If you’re using WordPress, there are plugins with enable this feature. It’s simple to setup and you get free real-time notifications for your readers.  

Thank you for your continued support and feedback and criticism. I will continue to work on the iOS and Web apps through November. I’ll be unavailable on email in December but please feel free to get in touch, I’ll try to reply to you during that time whenever possible. Happy holidays. 

October 2019 Update

Half of October is over and I have a short update for you. 

Elytra v1.5 is on track and includes new systems for:

  • Unread Articles
  • Bookmarks
  • General Articles

What’s new: How articles are loaded, and when they are loaded. I am delaying loading data from the network as much as possible so as to not be too eager to cache too early. This achieves one primary goal: reduced bandwidth usage. Also makes handling and expanding things easier for me in the app, but nothing you should concern yourself with. “Yay!” for both of us! 

I hope to have v1.5 ready to ship towards mid-November and close the pipeline by end of November.

I really did not know a better way to announce the next bit so I am going to sneak this one in here: I give you, a first look at Elytra for the Web

Elytra for Web - Unread - Light Theme

Elytra for Web - Unread - Dark Theme

It is no where close to complete. I have barely gotten the article renderer to work with the basics. Lots of long coffee fuelled sessions still to go.

I decided to do the Web App first while I continue to work on the design of the macOS App and continue to improve the iOS app. The iOS app is pretty stable in v.1.5 now and has everything we need it to have, so now I can assign time to other platforms. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share more progress on this blog so stay subscribed through the RSS Feed. I’ll share Alpha Testing notes about the Web App later in November.  

Moving to Sign In with Apple

For v1.5, which will be a supplementary update to the v1.4 Fall update, I’m considering moving the authentication system to Sign In with Apple. I’ve just finished testing this system and it works as advertised, however it took much much longer than it should have. 

It works well on iOS, as well as the web. This is very important for me as all previous mechanisms I had looked into to link the session in your browser to the iOS app had too many steps.

Sign In with Apple is by far the most efficient system and still ends up giving me a single User ID to work with, no emails, no names, nothing. So it also keeps in line with Elytra’s Privacy Policy.

These changes should become available in the following weeks as I publish the v1.5 Beta Builds to TestFlight  for preliminary testing. All new users will have to use Sign In with Apple ID. All existing users will have to migrate their account to it, which I’m trying to keep simple. 

Push Notifications & WebSub

Since version 1.0, Elytra has supported the WebSub protocol, and as a natural consequence of it: Push Notifications. 

The WebSub protocol enables Elytra to receive real-time notifications from websites and update the internal cache of latest articles from these websites. 

I recently noticed some abnormalities in the WebSub log that runs every weekend. Quite a few websites:

  • Use an old (outdated) version of the protocol via a plugin (WordPress’ PuSHPress plugin) or similar
  • Use a custom implementation that does not follow the protocol outlined by the W3C Doc. 

This caused several websites to advertise their WebSub Hubs but not respond correctly to the subscription requests. A notable exception was Medium.com. While the RSS Feed URL for these were correct, Medium used to respond with a “incorrect topic url” error which was easy to fix because they also responded back with the correct URL to use for that feed. 

I have since automated the above process, so no further actions are required by publishers relying on such hubs. However, if you are using any other implementation and WebSub doesn’t seem to be working on your blog:

  • Try a different plugin (if you’re using a plugin)
  • Try a different hub (some plugins allow you to define the hubs you would like to use)
  • If you have written a custom implementation, ensure it uses the latest standards defined in the WebSub protocol linked above. 

If you still run in to any issues, please feel free to get in touch with me at support@elytra.app.

Duplicate Blogs

Another issue I noticed is duplicate blogs. A lot of people import their OPML files into Elytra and detecting duplicates is often tricky. The reason is simple, a single blog sometimes has multiple URLs pointing to the same feed. Now the obvious solution would be to check the title, but that doesn’t work either because larger websites have separate feeds based on topics. 

So detecting duplicates is tricky.

Solving the Problem

Both of these issues can be solved in the upcoming dashboard I am working on for Publishers. I hope to create a hub for Publishers to use for a nominal cost as well as enable publishers to group Duplicate blogs and RSS feeds and point to the single source of truth by claiming ownership of these RSS Feeds. 

I’ll be publishing a consultation draft as to which features should be paid and which should be free, but I know one thing for sure: duplicate feeds consolidation will definitely be free for everyone. It is good for Elytra, you and your readers and this shouldn’t be an expense for anyone involved. 

August 2019 Update

Web Service

Over the last couple of days, I have been testing a new way for reliably fetching and caching RSS data from your favourite RSS feeds. 

Ironically, my preliminary implementation of this reliable method wasn’t all that reliable usually not adding new articles to the database. Luckily, I caught this issue within 24h and has now been patched. 

This change matters for two reasons:

  1. Although this new method is slower by almost 50%, it uses less resources like CPU and RAM, so I was able to downsize the server that runs this process. This means a small reduction in operating costs for me. 
  2. I have improved logging across the board so now I’ll know exact reasons why a particular RSS Feed failed to update. So the next time if you reach out to me telling me a feed wasn’t updated in a while, I should be able to resolve it quicker. 

iOS App

The progress on this has been slower than I had hoped. iOS 13 is changing a lot across the Betas, and has been one of the buggiest releases in recent memory. I have all the major things covered but I’m most likely not going to release the iOS 13 release of Elytra until the iOS 13 GM becomes available. 

macOS App

Yes, this is planned. But in the mean time, NetNewsWire is out in Public Beta. Definitely give it a shot. 

Improving Discoverability

Finding interesting content to read online has always been easy. Run to your nearest Subreddit Stand or Twitter Board and you’ll find yourself bombarded with a lot of information. What you wanted are topics you’re interested in. So you spend time talking to people and finding new sources. And when you do, you add its RSS Feed to your favorite Reader, like Elytra.

There is scope for improvement here. A lot of social networking services use Graphs to determine what you may want to read. That’s cool (it is, I’m completely fascinated by it) but it involves opening up your reading habits, requiring and storing your personal info, syncing your contacts so the service and find your friends and see what they are reading. It all adds to up to being a very invasive technique.

My Proposal & Implementation

I queried up the blogs in Elytra (over 9000 of them, wow!) and I was happy to see that the majority of them provide tags/categories information through the RSS Feed 1. So I decided to use this information to bring these topics of interest to you from blogs you already follow.

Tags in Unread & Blog Feeds

I’m still exploring this direction but I believe this will open up a lot of possibilities for you to discover new blogs, authors and topics of interest. This information is already made available to Elytra by the blogs and as it does not rely on your information, we successfully keep things private as usual.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so head over to the Reddit discussion here.

1. If you run a blog which does not expose this information through its RSS Feed, you should definitely consider adding those.