Find the right RSS reader for you

Find the right RSS reader for you

The Internet is all about disseminating information, but it can be difficult to find the information you’re looking for. Search engines began to appear as Internet users struggled to locate useful information in an increasingly expanding and often overwhelming universe of data. But continually having to search for information is time-consuming. Wouldn’t it be better if the information you want actually found its way to you, instead?

This is the hope of a popular new technology called Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. In fact, if you spend time on the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly seen small RSS graphics showing up on many sites.




Icons like these, representing RSS feeds that you can subscribe to for ongoing information on a subject or from an author, are appearing all over the Internet


RSS began as a simple way to publish (or syndicate) a continual feed of writings by an author. A user could then subscribe to a variety of publications that interested him or her most, and the content would be automatically downloaded and presented. The user doesn’t have to bookmark and repeatedly visit dozens of sites. The concept is similar to subscribing to magazines that interest you that are then delivered to your house.

Just as newsgroups satisfy a need for interactivity among users with similar needs or interests, RSS satisfies a need for content producers and consumers to exchange information of common interest. Typically, these publications have been blogs, but additional content types are emerging. In this column, I describe how you can select an RSS reader that’s suitable for you and show you how to make the best of this new revolution.

Making the move to RSS

The notion of one computer publishing information and another computer subscribing to it is nothing new in computer science. A few well-intentioned but impractically advanced implementations of this concept in the 1990s produced some memorable dot-com failures. Microsoft had proposed a Channel Definition Format (CDF) in 1997, and Netscape had proposed an RDF Site Summary (RSS) format in 1999—both of which are based on the adaptable XML format. Netscape renamed their format Rich Site Summary when they introduced it as RSS 0.91. Dave Winer of UserLand renamed RSS yet again to Really Simple Syndication when he introduced version 2.0. Discussion continues about how to re-combine the standards into a single, vendor-neutral format.

Despite the confusion in formats and naming conventions, the idea of syndicating information is powerful and compelling. But unlike the push syndication model of the 1990s, RSS today is a straightforward implementation of publish/subscribe that is more on an "as needed" or passive basis. In addition, RSS’s XML data format is the perfect lingua franca between programs. It is controlled by the community that needs it rather than a proprietary format that is closed to community involvement.

So, if content producers make their content available through the RSS syndication format, how do users acquire the content? They need an RSS reader. Reader programs, which are similar in concept to a newsreader or e-mail client, go by several names, including news readers, news aggregators, and RSS aggregators. News became a popular term to describe these readers, because the earliest and most common use of RSS was to announce blog entries, which are typically thought of as "newsworthy tidbits."

But RSS is capable of delivering far more than news. Many people and many companies, including Microsoft, are recognizing the potential of RSS to deliver any kind of timely content, including lists and podcasts. Microsoft recently announced that the next version of the Microsoft Windows operating system (codenamed "Longhorn") will support a rich complement of RSS features, both on the publication and on the subscription side. As a result, the term aggregator is growing in popularity, because it reflects the ability to aggregate a variety of content types.

Evaluate popular RSS readers

RSS readers fall into a few basic categories:

Server-based readers. These readers typically perform all their background functionality on servers, and the user accesses the interface through a Web browser. This type of aggregator is popular with mobile users who need to access their feeds from multiple locations and computers. NewsGator Online, Bloglines, and My MSN are popular versions of server-based aggregators.
Stand-alone clients. Like e-mail clients and newsreaders, stand-alone RSS readers offer organizational capabilities, and you can read your feeds while disconnected from the Internet. RSS Bandit, FeedDemon, and SharpReader are popular stand-alone readers. For Macintosh users, NetNewsWire is a popular choice.
Microsoft Office Outlook add-ins. If you use Office Outlook and want to keep all your e-mail and news in a single location, an Office Outlook add-in may be for you. I use NewsGator Outlook Edition, but intraVnews is also popular.
Browser-based reader add-ins. These reader add-ins extend browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer and Firefox to include aggregator functionality. Onfolio and Pluck are the favorites here. Because reading blogs often leads to browsing the Web, one program that offers both options adds significant convenience. RSS has become so popular that Microsoft has announced that Internet Explorer 7.0 will include built-in support for RSS.

Several of the stand-alone, Office Outlook, and browser-based readers either already offer or are promising to offer automatic podcast downloads. Server-side aggregators, however, are popular with anyone who wants to access their selected feeds from any Internet connection. Plus, they can offer many background feed analysis and comparison features (think Amazon suggestions) more easily than client-based programs can. Figure 2 shows a view in Office Outlook 2003 with NewsGator’s folders.


RSS feed folders from the NewsGator Office Outlook add-in


Find or import feeds

When you’ve selected and installed your RSS reader, you can start looking for feeds that interest you. Many feeds start with a preinstalled list of popular sites. But you can find feeds all over the Web: Just look for the icons shown above.

Each RSS reader has a different method for subscribing to feeds. With NewsGator, for example, simply right-click the RSS or XML icon, and then click Subscribe in NewsGator, as shown below.


Like most RSS readers, NewsGator makes subscribing to feeds easy.


Over time, you’ll collect feeds on your own as you browse to sites that interest you. But the following sites can help you find blogs, or RSS feeds: Technorati, Bloglines Most Popular Feeds, PubSub, and Feedster. Another great way to populate your reader is to import a feed list from someone whose opinion you trust. The best import format is Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) files, and most RSS readers can use this format. Many bloggers provide OPML files of their favorite feeds on their blog. Simply download the file and import it into your reader. The figure below shows an example of a subscription list that you can edit, import to, and exported from.


Import and export options in the NewsGator subscriptions list


If you’re interested in news, check with your favorite news outlets. Many major news publishers, including include CNet for technology news, NPR News, and Fox News, are catching on to RSS and publishing feeds of their news stories.

Microsoft is also making numerous feeds available through RSS, such as newly available downloads and articles from a variety of sources, including security bulletins, press releases, Windows Marketplace, Channel 9 for developers, MSN Spaces for blogs, and even Expert Zone articles.

After you have a few feeds, your reader will continually check them to see if items more recent than those you have have been published. The figure below shows NewsGator retrieving its feeds.


Progress report as NewsGator analyzes the feeds in its subscriptions list


Avoid information overload

After you’ve subscribed to dozens or hundreds of feeds, the challenge is to stay on top of them and make them actually add value to your life. I admit that I struggle with this myself. The current crop of RSS readers need some improvements in this area, but what’s written has tremendous value, so it’s worth making the best of it now. The following tips can help:

Make sure that your aggregator is up to the task. Some of them slow down dramatically beyond a few dozen feeds.
Make sure that your computer and Internet connection won’t slow you down.
Learn to use the tools in your reader. Organize content in ways that make sense to you. If your reader permits folder hierarchies, you might even choose to make folders with names like "Read Daily," "Read Weekly," and "Follow-Up."
Mark content as read or unread so that you know to come back to it.
Delete old content that you don’t need.
Unsubscribe to sites that have lost meaning for you. The blogger may have changed, you may have changed, or perhaps you misidentified the feed as valuable because of one good post.
Learn to identify a "signal-to-noise" ratio for how much good content a site has compared its meaningless content. Eliminate the feeds that don’t have sufficient valuable content.

When you get familiar with blog entries, you’ll notice that many of them have a comments feature. This feature gives readers a chance to respond to the post and interact with the author and their fellow readers. Feedback like this adds even more value to the original posts, but it is of course time-consuming. Finding good tools and developing a good workflow is essential.

Ride the future with RSS

The future is bright for RSS and all the programs it can enable. Podcasting, photoblogs, and moblogs (mobile phone blogs) are already out there, and the latest up-and-comer is video blogs. Microsoft has recognized the potential; in their recent announcements about RSS support in Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7.0, Microsoft based their proposed enhancements on RSS 2.0 because of its provision for extensibility. This means new categories of applications for RSS will emerge soon. Even the fact that RSS will be recognized by the browser itself will improve everyone’s experience with RSS. With Internet Explorer 7.0, for instance, clicking on a link that’s an RSS feed no longer results in a spew of cryptic XML, but a view of the blog entry or list formatted for human consumption, complete with links for adding the feed to your subscription list. RSS feeds will also be supported as a new type of Favorites.

Imagine a world where Artificial Intelligence (AI) analyzes thousands of blogs, cross-pollinates lists, finds interesting content for you based on what’s been on your radar lately, and downloads and presents this information to you at convenient times. The future is indeed bright for RSS.

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