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Saturday, November 08, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Reeling in what you want from the Web

By Glenn Fleishman
Special to The Seattle Times

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ike many news junkies, I scan headlines and read piles of industry and general reports every day. It's an occupational hazard.

Trying to find what's new, however, used to be a tedious process, which involved visiting dozens of Web sites and trying to remember which stories I'd read and when.

Then RSS news syndication and aggregation entered my life. This complicated set of words describing an Internet publishing method boils down to a simple concept: Web sites publish the latest updates to a formatted file on their Web site, and you use software that automatically checks that file, notifying you of any changes.

In 1997, several companies simultaneously were trying to offer a similar service, known as "push" technology. The push buzz centered on how these companies constantly pushed content, whether you wanted it or not, to a piece of software you installed on your computer.

Getting into RSS


The Open Directory Project (dmoz.org, search for RSS News Readers) lists nearly 50 news readers, which includes both Web sites and standalone software.

There are a few notable software packages. The Windows Outlook plug-in NewsGator (www.newsgator.com/default.aspx) combines the RSS with e-mail by inserting newly found RSS items directly into your Outlook mailbox as if they had arrived via e-mail. The Mac OS X-only NetNewsWire (ranchero.com/netnewswire), written by Seattle programmer Brent Simmons, comes in fee and free versions. The NewsMonster program (www.newsmonster.org/) works on all platforms as a Java program inside Mozilla 1.0 or Netscape 7 or later versions of either browser.

Two popular Web sites offering RSS subscriptions include NewsIsFree (www.newsisfree.com) and MeerKat (www.oreillynet.com/meerkat/index.php). Both have a large set of feeds from which users can pick and choose, or add their own.

Push was pushy, and it overwhelmed corporate and home network capacities, dumping more information on users than they would ever want. This also came at a time when the norm was pretty slow data-transmission speeds. Push died an ugly and rapid death.

RSS, an acronym that doesn't expand to any one definition, is better described as "push locally, pull globally."

Getting past blacklisting

Many news sites have adopted RSS as an alternative or replacement for e-mail lists, or listservs, which are more and more frequently the victim of unintended spam filtering. Many lists — which send subscribers information in the form of electronic newsletters or messages — find themselves temporarily blacklisted or they learn after a mailing that double-digit-percentages of legitimate subscribers never received the message.

That problem is avoided with RSS, because you don't provide personal details to a Web site you're following — not even an e-mail address or password. Instead, the RSS news aggregator software, which is installed on your computer, regularly checks a special file on a Web site feed to which you've subscribed.

If the file contains newer items than the last time the software checked, the aggregator software flags the item as new, displaying the latest headline and an abstract. The unsubscribing process also avoids difficulties found with e-mail lists. Because you control the feed, you don't need to engage in the tedious exchange of syntactically correct e-mail messages or finding your username and password for a Web site, as required to remove yourself from legitimate e-mail subscriptions.

In the most typical case, a publisher like CNET's News.com or The New York Times uses a content-management system that allows them to post news stories, the act of which automatically updates an RSS file or feed. Web loggers who post using Blogger Pro, Movable Type and many other software systems can automatically generate an updated RSS feed each time they update their Web log.

The RSS feed created by the publisher contains details including the name of the feed, the author of a post or story, and the language used in the content. More important, the feed includes a set of items that represent individual news stories, postings or entries. Each site may have an unlimited number of feeds. Every time a given subject area, page, or Web log is updated with a new posting or story, the Web log or content-management software revises the RSS file to include the latest item.

The RSS feed

To subscribe to an RSS feed, you install news aggregation software or create an account at a Web site that manages the process and scans Web sites for updates. Sites that offer RSS feeds usually have a small orange icon with reverse-letter type that reads "XML," or the words "Syndicate This Site" linked to the feed's Web address.

A user copies the link from that icon or text typically by holding down the mouse or right-clicking and selecting Copy Link, and then pastes it into the news aggregator. The news aggregator verifies that the link is valid, then adds the feed to the list it monitors.

Most aggregators check for updates to a feed on a defined interval: every 30 or 60 minutes at a certain time after the hour. Updates on demand are also possible in many programs and sites.

Every time a new item is found, the aggregator software presents it to you as a new item, much like a new e-mail message. If you're using standalone software, the item shows up in a list that you can then select to read a summary of (if one exists) or double-click to open in a Web browser. You can also receive RSS updates integrated with your e-mail or via a Web site.

System options

Because individuals currently have to choose and install software or use a Web site to aggregate news, the natural question is whether more profound support could be on the way through an operating system maker.

In an interview earlier this year about its synchronization software, iSync, Apple Computer wouldn't comment specifically on news aggregation but did say that it was working with selected software developers who wanted to add on to iSync. The company recently gave away the third-party iBlog program to subscribers to its .Mac service (www.mac.com); iBlog allows both Web log posting and RSS news aggregation.

At Microsoft, spokesman Erik Denny said via e-mail: "Microsoft is engaged and interested in RSS but isn't commenting on future product plans at this time." He did say, however, that "moving forward, you can expect Microsoft Web properties will inevitably start to put more and more into XML-based formats."

XML is a programming language that's a fundamental part of the company's push with its .NET framework to link information sources. An example Chairman Bill Gates demonstrates involves using Microsoft Excel to poll Amazon.com's XML-based Web services interface to retrieve the current price for one of his books.

Some sites have started experimenting with meta-aggregation, or using RSS as a tool to find the latest information from many sites and distill it into yet another RSS feed that provides updates or analysis.

Technorati (www.technorati.com), for example, watches more than 1 million Web logs mostly by checking RSS feeds. When the feed indicates an update, the site retrieves the Web log page, indexes it, and updates its "Cosmos," or the skein of links that connect Web logs.

But Technorati also offers a $10-per-year RSS feed service that could be called "blog ego surfing," or more politely "blog press clipping." Every time a blog anywhere in the Technorati universe mentions a particular URL, the RSS feed is updated with a link to the item.

RSS could also turn into a killer application for handhelds with wireless and cellular data access. "RSS has the potential to make it easier for users to get access to information anywhere on any device," said Microsoft's Denny.

In other words, all the news that fits, it pulls.

Glenn Fleishman, a Seattle freelancer, writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.


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