Introducing Freader

Freader.coTLDR: Freader is a social reading app.  I made it because Google killed Reader and I wanted a way to share and comment on stuff with my friends.  It’s open source! (GPLv3)

Last time, we talked about “Mom and Pop” startups that fill a niche need that large companies have trouble filling.  Now I want to tell you about one of my projects that does exactly that.

Freader is a simple social reading platform.  You have a private forum with your friends to share links, read articles, and comment on them.  I use it in two ways.  I have a Fread (or group) with my friends and we share interesting and funny links (aka cat videos..).  It’s like our own private Reddit.  It’s (slightly) different from Reddit because it is optimized for posting and commenting.  Almost everyone in the group posts and comments and people typically read every post.  The other use case is for work.  My cofounder and I do a lot of market research (aka read Techcrunch), and we used to email each other interesting websites and respond with comments.  This is a more structured way to handle that process.

As I mentioned, Freader is similar to Reddit.  It is also similar to Facebook groups.  However, what prompted me to make it was Google Reader.  I used to be a heavy user of Google Reader, especially the sharing features.  In November, Google decided that it didn’t make sense to have two social products and removed the sharing features in the interest of having folks share those articles on Google+.  Unfortunately G+ does not work very well for this purpose.  There is a lot of extra stuff in your stream (which requires a lot work to clean up), and it’s easy to miss things.  Also, it’s not optimized for reading.  You get a tiny, very narrow, space for the article.  Facebook has similar problems, though they are somewhat alleviated if you use a group for this.

Since there are very similar alternatives, I’m not expecting Freader to go gangbusters. However, I did feel the need to create it since I wasn’t satisfied with the alternatives, so I thought I would share it with others.  If people do use it, I intend to charge directly for it (for reasons mentioned in my last post) in some, hopefully unobtrusive, manner.

Now for the technology!

Freader is built on top of Rails 3.0.  It uses Backbone.js, jQuery, and the glorious Twitter Bootstrap on the front end (did you recognize the topbar?).  It is hosted on Heroku Bamboo.

This was my first Backbone.js project.  I previous worked on some Rails projects and I quickly realized the need for a javascript framework.  I like Backbone because it is very light weight and extensible.  It doesn’t force you to do things in a certain way like Rails does.  I also looked at Sproutcore (seemed a little too heavy weight for my first JS framework, but I intend to check it out) and Spine.js (seems very similar to Backbone, but the CoffeeScript really turned me off.  I have worked with fake languages that compile to real languages before and found it extremely painful.  If you’re curious, that was at Nvidia and ARM using internal languages that compile to Verilog).

I have released the source code under the GPLv3.  I had trouble finding real applications out there when I was learning Backbone and Rails, so hopefully someone will find this useful.  I also made a few simple extensions to Backbone.js.  Backbone doesn’t handle relations very well (like when a Post model includes Comments models).  So rather than use the large and complex backbone-relational.js (the source is almost as large as backbone itself!) I wrote a couple of helper functions.  I also created a simple solution for linking models to forms, the FormView class. I will do a separate post on these extensions.

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