Really Simple Syndication
by Reid Goldsborough
Imagine having just the
information you need delivered to you as soon as it becomes available. That’s
always been the Holy Grail of the Information Age.
Since the Internet became the
Internet, people have tried to come up with better ways to use it to stay
informed. One of the latest and most successful is a Web-based system called
RSS, now generally understood to mean Really Simple Syndication (it has meant
different things in the past).
For Web users, the chief benefits
of RSS are convenience and saving time. Instead of periodically going to
selected Web sites and blogs to find out what’s new, you can direct that new
information be delivered to you automatically.
For Web site owners, the chief
benefit is that ability to give people another means of obtaining your content.
Faced with a site that doesn’t provide RSS feeds, some visitors may opt for
similar sites that do. This applies to any business site, news site, personal
blog, or other destination with frequently changing information.
RSS is also used for podcasting,
the delivery of audio and video files of your choice to mobile devices such as
Apple’s popular iPod.
Access to RSS
You subscribe to RSS feeds through
an RSS Web service or RSS reader. The most popular RSS Web service today is
a free service that lets you not only subscribe to RSS feeds that originate
elsewhere, but also publish your own. (The company behind the service was
founded by Mark Fletcher, the brains behind ONElist, which eventually became
Yahoo! Groups )
You can also access RSS feeds from
your desktop. RSS is integrated into Mozilla Firefox (<span
the second-most popular Web browser behind Microsoft Internet Explorer. And you
can access them using Microsoft Internet Explorer with add-on products such as
the free Dogpile Search Tool (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.dogpile.com). Plus, NewsGator (<span
is a heavier-duty commercial program that can, among other things, harness RSS
to help companies keep track of their competitors.
Other free ways to tap into RSS
are Google’s Gmail and the latest version of Yahoo! Mail. RSS is built into
Tiger, Apple’s most recent operating system.
In the future, RSS is bound to
become even more mainstream. The upcoming Microsoft Outlook 2007 has RSS
integration—according to the beta version, RSS feeds appear as folders in your
mailbox. The next version of Microsoft Windows will also have RSS built into
it. And a competing technology—Atom—has some services and products that support
both it and RSS.
How Information Flows In
As its name suggests, RSS is
fairly simple. On Web pages, RSS (or Atom) Web feeds are typically indicated
with an orange square marked with radio waves, the letters RSS or XML (RSS is
based on the XML page markup language), or the word “Subscribe.” After
subscribing, when you click on a headline or summary that’s of interest, the
article or post will be delivered to you.
Unlike email newsletters, which
may be delivered to your inbox once a day, RSS lets you keep up with new
developments virtually as they happen. More sites provide RSS feeds than
newsletters. Some sites provide RSS feeds for discussions, letting you
subscribe to a feed not only for the site’s articles but also for comments
posted in response.
Compared with PointCast, the first
popular “push” service that was all the rage 10 years ago, RSS doesn’t slow
down your PC and tie up corporate networks with headlines and ads. You control
when you want the information you request delivered to you—every few minutes,
hours, or days. RSS works as well on slower dial-up connections as high-speed
There are nearly as many ways to
create RSS feeds with your site as to subscribe to them, from free on up. As
just one example, RSS DreamFeeder (<span
integrates into Adobe Dreamweaver (<span
popular high-end Web development software.
On the downside, as a clipping
service for the Web, RSS can contribute to the problem of information overload.
If you sign up for more and more feeds, you may wind up feeling barraged by
data. The solution is to “mark all as read” without reading or unsubscribe to
feeds that you repeatedly find yourself skipping.
If you don’t follow any Web sites
closely, RSS may not be worth checking out. But if you do, it can be an
efficient way to track what’s new at those sites and new information in general
about subjects you’re following.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or members.home.net/reidgold.