TwentyFive Squares Interview: Makers of the Press RSS Phenomenon

Since the demise of Google Reader, RSS has seriously entered the spotlight. Some Reader clients have died away, whilst others have been upgraded, improved and have become immensely popular as a result. An app that has made it into the latter camp is Press, the first, and only, product of two-man development team, TwentyFiveSquares.

To accompany our review of the latest version of Press, I recently managed to quiz Jordan Beck, one of the co-founders of TwentyFiveSquares, on Press, RSS and future plans….

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TwentyFiveSquares —Jordan-Beck and Jay Ohms. Image credit: Josh Ohms Photography

TwentyFiveSquares — Jordan-Beck and Jay Ohms. Image credit: Josh Ohms Photography

Thank you for stepping into the AppStorm developer spotlight. Okay, first things first – tell us who TwentyFive Squares is and what it is that you make.

TwentyFive Squares is a small development group/firm/collective/thing that consists of two dudes; myself (Jordan Beck) and Jay Ohms. We’re developers who have been working together at various jobs since we graduated from college. While working for our last company, we started building an app on the side called Press. The app started taking up so much of our time that we decided to quit our jobs and go full-time. And thus, TwentyFive Squares was born. And we make apps. 🙂

What made you decide to create an RSS app in the first place? I’m assuming you’re committed RSS readers…

Yep, definitely. Both Jay and myself use RSS every day. We know what we like and what we don’t like when it comes to RSS. There was nothing for Android that met our needs, so we decided to build an app that would.

In a blog post on your site, you suggest that prior to version 4.0, Android wasn’t very developer-friendly, but has since become a “playground and inspiration for new areas of design.” Did you ever consider developing Press on a different OS?

At first, it didn’t really cross our mind. Press started after we attended Google IO 2011 because we wanted to build something for our shiny new tablets. At that point, Android was at version 3.0 which we learned pretty quickly was not very pleasant. So we put it away for the most part, but then Google announced 4.0. We felt that this was going to be a much stronger version of the OS. So we started working on Press a lot more. It wasn’t very long after that when we felt that supporting anything before 4.0 was going to be working in the wrong direction for us. So we didn’t. It has probably been one of the best decisions we’ve made with Press. We can focus on creating a great experience and worry less about compatibility. Now that Press is much more mature, we have tossed around the idea about bringing it to another OS, but there is just so much opportunity with Android right now that we will probably just stay where we are.

Developing for Android must be a challenge, given the number of devices involved. Which devices do you run tests on?

We actually don’t have that many test devices. I have a Galaxy Nexus and a Nexus 7 while Jay has a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 7. I think we’re starting to get a reputation for having a Nexus user-base, which is fine by me. We have started using emulators more, but it’s mainly just those four different devices. If anyone wants to send us a Nexus 10 though, that would be great :). We’re a small team, so buying many devices isn’t really an option. But we’ve been ramping up our beta testing process, so we can work out issues before the app hits the Play Store. Don’t be fooled by the critics, though – developing for Android 4.0+ is not an exercise in frustration. Google’s addition of the Holo default theme and other OS features took major strides to ensure that apps look great on any OEM hardware.

I notice Press supports Feedly, Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and now Fever, but it was originally a Google Reader client. How did Google’s announcement of Reader’s impending closure affect your ongoing plans?

Our first reaction was panic. We’d just quit our jobs at that point, so we felt a lot of pressure. But after that fear went away, we could see potential. RSS has been dominated by Google Reader for so long that no one else really wanted to compete. It’s exciting to see new RSS options popping up from both larger companies and indie developers. In fact, we’ll probably look back and see Google Reader dying as one of the best long-term things to happen to Press.

There are quite a few neat little touches you’ve included in Press’ interface, such as the ability to tap feed items for quick access to sorting and sharing options. Is this the result of your own personal experience, or outside inspiration?

I would say it’s a combination of both. Our initial pass at Press was the features that we specifically wanted. Both Jay and I use RSS similarly, so we had a good idea of our use cases. Some of that was inspired by other apps/services/etc. and some features resulted from the typical “it always annoys me when…” type of discussion. But since then, we have also taken a lot of ideas from people who use Press and send us feedback. People who have different use cases than we do. We take these feature ideas and work them into our style. A good example is the ability to mark previous items as read. It was something that we never needed before, but was a huge request, so we added it. Now I use it on a daily basis!

Any app that’s going to be used for a considerable amount of reading needs a good design. How did you approach the creation of Press’ design in order to make it both stylish and legible?

The first thing we did was bring in our friend, Chad Urbanick, who is a fantastic designer. Jay and I had a good idea of how we wanted to handle the design for Press, but lacked the skills to create the many assets needed. That’s where Chad came in. He has a unique style and was able to push us farther than we could have gone on our own. But the most important thing is that all three of us believe that the experience of an app is essential. This includes everything from design aesthetics to features. It does sound kind of cliché, but we work hard to get Press out of your way so you can enjoy reading. If there is a geek form of “hippie”, we’re probably in that category. 🙂

Nexus 4 collage shots5

Press is easy on the eyes, no matter what content it displays.

Given that folks use RSS for a variety of different purposes, did you have a certain kind of RSS user in mind when designing Press?

We feel like our main niche is somewhere right in the middle between the ultra-hardcore RSS user and the Flipboard style user. The reason Press fits there is because that’s where Jay and I fit as RSS users. As Press has grown, we’ve tried to add some features to broaden that appeal a bit, but we will probably always be a good middle ground.

As the creators of an RSS app, I would expect you to be confident of the future of RSS reading. But how do you envisage the RSS format, and the way we use it, evolving?

It’s kind of ironic that the day Google Reader died was both a day of panic, but also a day where RSS was brought to the forefront. RSS has never been a technology that was used by the masses. If you explain what RSS does for people, they see the benefit immediately, but the barrier to entry is always too high. Once Google Reader relinquished the reins, a lot of people have stepped up to fill the void. Some are just Google Reader clones, which is great because those are needed. But some are working to put a more consumer-friendly face on RSS and lower that barrier of entry. The amount of information on the web is obviously going to keep growing, so accessing the content you’re interested in will consume more and more time. There’s no doubt that the consumer-facing products will grow and change. They will add new features that were not traditionally a part of RSS in order to bring people in who have no idea what RSS is. But we think the underlying technology has a pretty exciting future.

And finally, the feature-set of Press is already somewhat formidable, but do you have any plans to add to it?

Definitely. We just published version 1.4 which added Fever support, so that brings us up to four services in Press. We’re happy with those four services for now. We have our eyes on a few other options for the future, but services take a lot of time for development, testing, and maintenance.
We also are planning on adding a dark theme and subscription management. Other than that, we have a lot of ideas. Just need to prioritize them.

On top of that, we’re hoping to start working on our second app very soon. We’re in the design phase right now and I think it’s looking pretty good. 🙂

That’s All Folks

A big thank you goes to Jordan for taking the time to speak to us, and I think you’ll agree that he’s done a great job of providing a developer’s viewpoint.

If you like the sound of Press, it is currently available on Play Store for $2.99. Alternatively, if you’d like to know a bit more about the app, you might like to check out our brand new review of it.