Apple’s Safari 6 RSS Blunder

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Apple…you’ve got some ‘splainin to do! What were you thinking when you made the wrong-headed decision to remove RSS support from Safari 6 and OS X Mountain Lion? You took a useful feature, one that was working well and causing no harm, and trashed it. Worse, anyone who now tries to access an RSS feed from Safari 6 is likely to wind up more dazed and confused than before.

[Background note: RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” It’s a way for a regularly updated site to publish standardized summaries of its latest postings. Many websites provide RSS support. Even Apple has a page listing its own RSS feeds. From an “RSS reader” application, users can track these summaries, deciding which items to click through to read in full. This can save time and hassle compared to having to separately visit each site to check for updates. NetNewsWire is an example of a popular RSS reader on the Mac.

Safari added RSS support years ago. While most people (including myself) don’t use Safari as a complete substitute for a dedicated reader, Safari’s RSS support provides a convenient way to open RSS URLs (feed://) without having to switch to a separate application. For example, I have a few RSS feeds saved as bookmarks, allowing me (until now) to quickly check on them directly from Safari. Browser RSS support is also perfect for when a link to an RSS feed appears in an web article; you can open the link without having to switch applications or subscribe to the feed.]

For me, the rumblings started when I updated to Safari 6 while still running OS X Lion. The first time I selected an RSS link in Safari 6, it automatically shunted me to OS X Mail, where it opened each RSS summary as a separate item (as if each one was an email message). This is when I realized that RSS support in Safari was gone. It was not a welcome surprise. As I didn’t use Mail as my email client, I didn’t want these RSS feeds shunted to Mail. And I certainly didn’t want Mail cluttered up with hundreds of RSS items. I knew there were ways to work-around this. Rather than bother, I just let the situation stand for the moment, accepting Mail as the recipient of RSS links originating in Safari. 

A few weeks later, I updated to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. Once more, I was surprised by the result. I selected an RSS link in Safari 6, expecting it to go to Mail. Nope. It turns out that, in Mountain Lion, RSS support is gone from Safari and Mail. Essentially, RSS support has been entirely removed from OS X. Making matters worse, when I launched Mail, I found that all of my previously saved RSS items had vanished. [A sarcastic thank you to Apple, for doing this deletion without warning and without giving me any chance to save the items. As it turns out, most of the RSS items remained stored in an RSS folder inside the Mail folder of my Library folder in my home directory. But accessing them there is hardly a user-friendly solution.]

So what did happen to my Safari RSS requests in Mountain Lion? Instead of going to Mail, an odd error message appeared. It claimed an “Infinite Loop” error had been detected:

Infinite Loop error

Clicking the “Send URL to Safari” button simply regenerated a new copy of the message. How unhelpful! Fortunately, I had a reasonable idea as to what was going on. I knew I had Fluid installed on Mac. I assumed that Safari, now that it was not opening RSS links anymore, had somehow selected Fluid as an RSS reader. The problem was that Fluid didn’t want to accept this assignment; hence the error. As I was no longer using Fluid, I decided to delete the app, to see what would happen next. Safari next attempted to shunt RSS feeds to another app, again one that rejected the RSS feed. Another failure.

What a mess! By this point, I was thinking: “How can anyone view all of this as an improvement from how things worked in Safari 5?” However, it turned out that the mess was not entirely Apple’s fault. I had installed RCDefaultApp, a third-party System Preferences pane that lets you assign default apps to various functions. With Safari no longer accepting RSS feeds, RCDefaultApp was attempting to find a substitute. This is where the choice of Fluid had originated. Unfortunately, RCDefaultApp (which has not been updated since 2009) does not seem entirely compatible with Mountain Lion. I tried to get it to shift to NetNewsWire (my preferred RSS reader) as my default RSS choice, but it would not allow me to do so.

Eventually, I selected RCDefaultApp’s “Disable” option, hoping that would act to “turn off” the program. Even this didn’t work as expected. If Safari has no idea what RSS reader to use, a “No RSS reader is installed” message should appear when you select an RSS feed, prompting you to pick an RSS reader from the Mac App Store. That’s not what happened to me in this case. When I next clicked an RSS feed in Safari, absolutely nothing happened! Safari ignored my action altogether. My frustration continued to grow.

Safari's RSS message

Safari’s “No RSS is installed” message


RCDefaultApp’s System Preferences pane

Finally, I gave up and deleted RCDefaultApp from System Preferences altogether. At last, the gods took mercy on me; NetNewsWire launched when I clicked an RSS URL in Safari. Even so, this was not an entirely satisfactory solution. For one thing, NetNewsWire sometimes persisted in asking me to re-subscribe to a feed each time Safari shunted a link from that site. Not good. More generally, I didn’t like having to leave Safari just to open a lone RSS link, especially if I didn’t care to subscribe to the feed.

Ignoring those problems for the moment, I shifted gears a bit. What, I now mused to myself, if I wanted to shift my default RSS reader from NetNewsWire to something else? With RCDefaultApp gone, how would I do this? In Safari 5, there was an option to select a default choice from the app’s Preferences settings. In Safari 6, this is all gone. The answer is that, in Mountain Lion, Apple offers no option for selecting a default choice. Another interface failure.

RSS preferences in Safari 5RSS preferences in Safari 5; gone in Safari 6.

Red Sweater’s Subscribe to Feed Safari extension can be helpful, but not for selecting a default app. The primary remaining alternative, as far as I know, is to directly edit the RSS value in the file, located in ~/Library/Preferences. Unfortunately, this involves a level of skill most Mac users do not have — nor should they need it for such a basic task. Okay, there is one other alternative: stop using Safari and shift to a web browser (such as Firefox) that still provides RSS support.

Beyond RSS feeds

The negative consequences of OS X’s removal of RSS support extend beyond opening RSS feeds. For example, in Safari 5, a white star appeared on pages displayed in Top Sites when they were updated. As I reported in a Macworld column, this no longer happens in Safari 6. This is because Safari 5 used RSS data to “know” when a page had been updated. Safari 6 can’t do this.

Bottom line

In my view, Apple took a wrong turn when it decided to completely remove RSS support from Mountain Lion. There’s even less justification for how poorly the change was handled — potentially leaving users to deal with the hassles I’ve described here. I am not alone in this reaction

While Apple has not commented on the rationale behind their decision, others have suggested one: “Most people don’t even know what an RSS feed is, and could care less, so it’s no issue to Apple, and just eliminates one more headache.”

I beg to differ. Even if you don’t know what an RSS feed is, you may occasionally have to deal with one. Safari 6 and Mountain Lion now make doing so harder than before. Further, as numerous postings on the web indicate, there are still many people who find RSS access from a web browser to be helpful — certainly more than use some of Safari’s esoteric features that still remain. I hope Apple makes a u-turn here eventually — and cleans up this RSS mess in a future Mountain Lion and/or Safari update.