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Monday, October 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Microsoft catering to masses

Seattle Times staff columnist

Get ready to be fed by Microsoft.

I'm not talking about the upgraded cafeterias in Redmond, or Bill Gates helping Third World farmers. Feeding, in this case, is the delivery of "newsfeeds" through Internet Explorer 7, the new browser Microsoft released last week. IE7 will soon be the way most people access the Web, and one of its biggest improvements is a new orange and white "Feed" button.

Microsoft didn't invent the technology — it's been around since the late 1990s. Netscape and blog pioneer Dave Winer created it so people could "subscribe" to Web sites.

The idea was to have software that notifies people when new content is added to a site, so they don't have to keep coming back to see what's new. It delivers headlines to your PC, similar to the way this paper delivers news to your doorstep.

Winer called it Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, a moniker that's now giving way to more consumer-friendly terms like "feeds."

They may not realize it, but millions of people now use RSS, especially with blogs. Its subscription capability is the secret sauce that makes blogs different than personal Web pages.

With IE7, you can subscribe to feeds and read them right in the browser. When you visit a Web site with feeds, the orange button lights up. You click to subscribe, and the feeds appear in a list alongside your Favorites site list.

Microsoft is playing catch-up to competing browsers such as Firefox and Opera, which have long incorporated feeds. There are also a number of popular, stand-alone programs for subscribing to feeds.

But most people still don't understand this remarkable technology, and Microsoft will finally take it mainstream — first with IE7, then with feeds in Vista and Office 2007.

That happens whenever Microsoft adds something to its universal platform. But the company isn't just leveraging the monopoly this time.

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I think Microsoft's taking a smart approach that will do for feeds what Google did for search. It's bringing a powerful technology to the masses by making it dramatically simpler to use.

Like Google, Microsoft is also cementing its position by providing free tools that make it easier for Web designers and software developers to work with feeds.

The tools help in part because they "spackle over" poorly written feeds, said Scott Hanselman, chief architect at Corillian, an online finance company in Portland.

"The Microsoft platform is cool because something like 30 percent of RSS feeds are malformed — they clean that up," he said.

Once feeds are mainstream, they'll become a new channel for companies to communicate with customers — a third leg of the stool, along with e-mail and Web pages, said Jakob Nielsen, a San Francisco usability expert hosting a design conference in Seattle this week.

Nielsen said feeds blend the experience of using computers and the Web by delivering a stream of content to the desktop that can be checked at a glance. Desktop-feed readers that display weather, headlines and messages are a key feature in Vista; they're also part of Apple's OS X software and Google's downloadable Sidebar program.

There may be less emphasis on Web pages as consumers and companies focus more on feed-driven applications run on the PC using data from the Web, Nielsen said.

That is, if people know what they're being fed. As recently as last summer, Nielsen's research found that "nobody knows what RSS means when you talk to average, non-geek type of people."

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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