The idea of Digg building a Reader replacement just resonated. The revamped Digg.com was already popular, especially in news and developer circles. It had a reputation for scrumptious headlines and kickers, courtesy of editorial director David Weiner, a HuffPo alum. Its tech team, led by CTO Michael Young had already shown serious backend chops, which meant people didn’t doubt its ability to pull off building a reader. The same minimalist sensibility that design director Justin Van Slembrouck had given the front page of Digg would translate well to the new project, and, hell: Its GM Jake Levine might even be able to figure out a way to monetize it in ways Google never had.
Because, ultimately, this is about money. Betaworks wasn’t throwing resources at a Digg Reader for altruistic reasons. The plan was to develop something with a mix of free and paid features. Maybe they’d charge a dollar for the iOS app or for tracking a large number of feeds; maybe the ability to search feeds would command a premium.
“I think we have a fantastic opportunity to be selling from day one,” McLaughlin predicted during an all-hands meeting in late April. “We’ll have something for free, something for pay. What we want are users who care enough about it to pay as a base, and then to build on top of that.”
With three months to build a viable RSS reader instead of nine, the team focused on its priorities. The new reader had to be fast and simple, just like the first version of the new Digg homepage, which was built in six weeks. It also needed to align with Digg’s goal of helping people decide what to spend their time on. “The main challenge for people now is to boil down and distill all the things that they could read,” McLaughlin said.
As it turned out, building an RSS reader is not easy — especially with just two front-end developers, two back-end developers, and a mobile developer. The first version is basically a Google Reader clone, which the team unabashedly admits. “We just walked over to the dead body,” general manager Jake Levine said.
While Digg managed to crank out a working RSS reader with data migration, keyboard shortcuts, and an iPhone app, it’s missing a key Google Reader feature: article search. The Digg team has more than two and a half years of experience working in news. Most of the company came from the Betaworks personalized reader News.me, and CTO Michael Young used to be the lead technologist at The New York Times’ R&D lab. But the group has no experience with search.
Anyway, we’ve long been vocal supporters of Betaworks, even suggesting they might become the future of media distribution.