Meet your next Web-based time-saver: customized news feeds that give news junkies their fix quickly and easily, without their having to scour the Web for all the latest bulletins. Called RSS, this standard could radically change the way you gather and manage information online.
Armed with an RSS newsreader--a simple cheap or free application--you can get headlines from your favorite news sites or receive an aggregated news feed on a single topic, like Iraq or computer software, that includes articles from many Web sources.
The feed reader periodically updates the display to pull in new stories; you simply click a headline to read the article. Delightfully, the feeds themselves cost end users nothing.
Individuals aren't the only potential beneficiaries of RSS. Web sites, including Web logs, can take feeds of headlines from other sources and display them for their visitors. The sites that generate feeds also benefit: Clicking on an RSS headline sends you back to the original source, thereby increasing traffic for the site that produced the headline.
Real Smooth Stuff
The RSS standard describes a simple framework to publish headlines and links on the Web. Although it has been around since December 2000, the standard got a boost when major Web sites like those for BBC News and Variety began featuring RSS news feeds.
RSS is a nested acronym: RDF Site Summary, where RDF stands for Resource Description Framework. But it's commonly called Really Simple Syndication--an apt name, since simplicity is key to RSS's growing popularity.
"News aggregators have the potential to let people scan a lot of different sources quickly," says Joel Abrams, partnership development specialist for the Christian Science Monitor's site. "RSS can help people find a lot of what they're looking for in one place."
Developers appreciate the ease of launching a basic RSS feed. "It took a day or two for one of our tech people to set [our RSS feed] up once we put them on it," Abrams says.
XML, the standard increasingly used by Web sites that manage their content in databases, enhances the simplicity of RSS. The XML standard lets content producers define data with tags such as title, link, product, and description. Once a site has stored data in this format, it's very easy for a script or database query to retrieve the relevant information for an RSS feed.
News isn't the only future for RSS. "A standard like this could be applied to solve a lot of problems," says Joanne Friedman, chief executive of technology consulting firm Connekted Minds. A reader can consolidate most types and sources of data, from a network or the Web. Maybe this tool is right for you, too.
RSS Starter Kit
Want to try out RSS? You'll need a newsreader and a list of feeds to which you want to subscribe. Here are a few of our favorites.
A free, open-source application called FeedReader is a good way to start. It's easy to learn--with an interface that resembles a stripped-down Outlook--and very stable. The $25 NewzCrawler pursues Outlook style a bit further with a more polished interface. If you use Trillian Pro, you need a separate application: A simple plug-in adds RSS support to this $25 multiconnected instant messaging program.
Newsreaders usually come preconfigured with a handful of popular news feeds. But you don't have to stop there.
Also, when you surf, keep your eye out for a little orange graphic labeled XML, which often marks a Web site's RSS feed.