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With technology, it’s so easy to get behind the curve: Just ignore some development you shouldn’t ignore. Today’s example is RSS.

With technology, it’s so easy to get behind the curve: Just ignore some development you shouldn’t ignore.

Recently I was talking with a colleague of mine, and he said, “I was getting all these weird headlines on my RSS reader.”

“On your what?” I asked.

He looked at me like he wanted to say, “You don’t know what an RSS reader is?!” But instead he said, “I use FeedReader with about a dozen channels.” Like I already knew about RSS, and was only obliquely enquiring as to which specific reader he used.

At that point I didn’t know if my ignorance was a big deal, but as with most Computer User readers, keeping up with the latest trends, products, and technological innovations is sort of a point of honor for me. Cravenly, I gave him a knowing nod, and the discussion continued along its original lines, as if my lapse was of little consequence.

Later, still feeling chagrined, I got back to my office. The first thing I did was a Web search for RSS. Worst fears confirmed; RSS appeared to be of some (maybe a lot of) importance. Behind the curve is a condition where you can see the bandwagon racing ahead, almost out of sight, and you’ve just decided to run after it. In this case, my first steps were to find out what I could about RSS.

What is it?

The priority question to ask, and potentially the last to be answered, was “Why is RSS important?” Even in my quick Web search I’d seen phrases like “The answer to infoglut,” which sounded suspiciously like hype. We’re well aware that we’re being inundated with information and that, especially on the Web, finding the useful (and reliable) information is becoming a monumental task. So what’s RSS got that’s so hot?

Spelling out what RSS stands for might help: Rich Site Summary; also, RDF (Resource Description Framework) Site Summary; also, Really Simple Syndication. Hmmm…maybe that’s not much help.

Another description goes like this: On the producer side–which could be a newspaper or magazine Web site, a corporate information source, or a Weblog–RSS is a document created in XML. These documents can be sent (via e-mail, as files, embedded in Web pages) to a user’s RSS reader–the piece of software that reads the XML, formats the information, and displays it as a Web page.

Typically this is a list of headlines, short summaries, bullets, and so forth that, when clicked, take the user to a Web site and Web page. Many newspapers and news organizations, such as the New York Times and the BBC, provide free RSS services. Your RSS reader will show news headlines from these sources and–this is crucial–you can select topics, so that you’re seeing only relevant headlines.

Not just for news

RSS is a form of “publish and subscribe” service with the distinction of dealing primarily in summaries (or at least shortened descriptions) organized by topic. This arrangement makes it possible to pipe a lot of frequently changing but pre-selected information to the user with a minimum of overhead and fuss. That’s why many people put the RSS readers on the desktop, where it can be accessed almost continuously–provided, of course, that there is continuous Internet connection.

One of the reasons RSS is catching on is the rise of blogs. As they proliferate, and do they ever, it becomes more difficult to find, visit, and keep up with the stream of monological consciousness; that’s about the most generous way I can describe blogs. What RSS brings to the stream (more like a tsunami) is the ability to sign on only with blogs that interest you, and then sort through the updated entries. Many people now using RSS got into it through blogs that offer it.

(This explains, in part, my ignorance of RSS, since I’ve haven’t gotten on board with the idea of wading through the personalized maunderings of amateur commentators when I have enough trouble keeping up with the edited and published thoughts of professional writers and journalists. Ah, well; I may yet learn and RSS may help.)

Many Web sites have a “latest news” option; this usually reflects the use of RSS. A lot of corporations are discovering that this is a convenient way to publish company information for use by employees, partners, and customers. So, yes: RSS can be important to almost any level of business. It’s another tool for disseminating information, and a very easy-to-use one at that.

Thanks to the use of XML and the simplified format of RSS, producing RSS documents is almost a no-brainer, the most difficult part being the mechanism to select or create summary entries. These days there are plenty of tools to help create an RSS feed, just as there are numerous free or inexpensive RSS readers.

Try it, you may like it

As is often the case with new technology, at some point the curious among us become motivated to try it despite reservations we might have. In the case of RSS, since it’s mostly free, trying doesn’t require much of an investment beyond a little time. Since there are many RSS tools and readers (and I have by no means tried them all), you might want to browse through a list of readers before jumping in.

Most readers provide some default feeds (news headlines and the like). But to really test the power of an RSS approach, try the listings of channels from sources such as Syndic8 or NewsIsFree, both of which have thousands of feeds.

So what’s the catch?

It’s rare that any new technology, especially a free one, is without drawbacks; RSS definitely has a few.

One is a good-thing, bad-thing that haunts many a new technology: standards. RSS is actually not new; it goes all the way back to 1997 when UserLand worked out the concept, which was then picked up by Netscape for its portal “channels.” This was when RSS became codified and split into different specifications. Today there are about five (depending on who you ask) RSS specifications and a new one, called the Atom Project, that is attempting to become the standard eventually ratified by the IETF. As usual, the standardization process means competition, incompatibilities, and a good deal of controversy, none of which has helped RSS developers or corporate acceptance. It’s an old story, and one that may or may not resolve itself in the next year or so.

Another admittedly more subjective drawback of RSS is its use of headlines and other snippets of information. Yes, a scan of your RSS headlines can be done quickly–the pre-selection of topics helps narrow the field. But it’s not the same as scanning a front page of a paper, flipping the pages of a magazine, or a browsing a Web site. What’s missing is context and contrast. I might be very interested in the latest developments in Iraq, but I might also be interested in unrelated stories–none of which I’ll see on my RSS list. I also might have difficulty discerning from the brief headline or summary whether a story is worth visiting.

These objections to RSS may be personal quibbles. There are plenty of news junkies out there who will be more than happy to streamline their habit, and who are (or soon will be) riding the RSS curve over the top. Others of us, particularly in the business realm, might be a little slower rounding the bend. But with a technology as promising as RSS, I don’t think we want to lose a chance to climb on the bandwagon.

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