Ihaven't had much time to surf the Web this month, I'm afraid. But fear not - I can hear those of you sighing with relief at the back - I've just discovered a wonderful feature that means I don't have to. Well, I say discovered, but I've known about this technology for some time, I've just never got round to using it. So what is this new toy, I hear you ask? RSS, or Really Simple Syndication.
If you want the nitty gritty on RSS, then you'll be pleased to hear that Jason Whittaker will be writing a more technical follow-up in next month's Internet column. Great minds and all that.
So what, I hear you ask, led me to stumble once again upon this technology and actually start using it this time? Firefox - well it had to be that or Google, really. More specifically it was the Sage plug-in for the Firefox browser that integrates an RSS/Atom feed reader into the browser interface. What's a feed reader?
If you can't wait until Jason explains it all properly next month, RSS is a technology that allows a Web site owner to easily publish a list of frequently updated items, like news stories or blog entries. It's suited to sites that update regularly and provides, with the right software, an automated way of alerting others to these updates. If a news site adds a new story to its main page, a title, description and link will also be published in the site's accompanying RSS feed.
Plug this RSS feed into an application that can make sense of it - a feed reader - and you have an "at a glance" overview of which sites you regularly visit have new content, a brief description and a link to follow for the full story. It's a bit like having a set of bookmarks that notify you when their content has been updated.
There are numerous standalone feed reader applications available, but the beauty of the Sage/Firefox approach is that you have everything you need already there in a program you use on a daily basis - no need to remember to launch another application in the morning or extra clutter on your already precious desktop space.
Sage runs as a sidebar in Firefox, which means it appears as a column to the left of the page you're currently browsing. When you first install it, it's hidden by default (which is partly why I overlooked its existence for so long). However selecting Sage from the View, Sidebar menu suddenly brings it to life - you can also toggle it by clicking on < ALT > -S. It looks a lot like this picture.
Sage has a couple of default feeds listed, but you'll probably want to add some of your own sites to it for it to be of any use. The first problem is finding an RSS feed to add, but thankfully Sage has a facility to search the page you're browsing and discover any RSS goodness that's buried within.
The process is simple. Once you've installed the Sage extension (see Sage Advice), make sure it's visible in the left-hand pane of your browser (Tools-Sage, or < ALT> -S). Then click the Discover Feeds button (the one that looks like a magnifying glass) and Sage will search the page you're browsing for available feeds.
I imagine you're currently looking at the PC World homepage and clicking the Discover Feeds button like a thing possessed. Unfortunately, loyal reader, PCW does not yet have an RSS feed - but I've been assured that it's in the pipeline. For the time being, I've chosen our esteemed Deputy MD's own blog to demonstrate.
Surf on over to http://filtered.typepad.com and then click the Discover Feeds button. After a short pause as Sage examines the page you should see a couple of feeds entitled Filtered (an RSS and an ATOM feed - both have the same content and are readable by Sage), along with some external feeds (feeds that are hosted by the same site, but not necessarily related to the page you're viewing). You can see what I mean in this image. Select the one you want and click the Add Feed button. And your father's sister has just married a bloke called Robert.
If you want to add more feeds then it's simply a matter of visiting sites you regularly browse and clicking the Discover Feeds button to see if the site owner is aware of this fantabulous new invention.
Put the kettle on
Once you've collected a bunch of feeds, the next thing to do is sit back and put your feet up for a bit. Nothing much is going to happen for the next hour or so, but that's the beauty of RSS. You don't have to wait for anything to happen, it all comes to you.
If you want to know which sites have been updating their pages while you've been away, click the Check Feeds button (the one with two arrows in a circle). Sage will run through the sites listed and look for updates. If it finds any, then the feed title will change to bold.
Click the feed and you'll then be presented with a browser page that shows a title and brief description of each item from the site, along with the date and time it was added (see screen shot). If an item tickles your fancy, click it and you'll be taken to the full story. That's it for now, but if you want to know more about this new content delivery method, don't forget to check Jason Whittaker's column next month.
FEED YOUR FACE
Now that you know just how easy it is to get targeted and up to date information on your desktop without having to go trawling for it, here are some choice RSS/Atom feeds to get you started. Just go to the pages listed here and click on the Discover Feeds button.
Like all things Firefox-related, adding the Sage extension is as simple as a simple thing (you've already installed Firefox right? If not, we've included it on this month's cover disc).
1) Select Extensions from the Tools menu, and then click the "Get More Extensions" link in the bottom-right of the box that pops up. This will take you to the Firefox Web site where extensions are listed.
2) Click on News Readers under the categories listed on the left and then scroll down to Sage. Click the Install link in the bottom-right.
3) Follow the instructions, close and restart the browser. And now you have a feed reader integrated into your browser of choice. Unless of course, your browser of choice is still Internet Explorer.