Imagine having delivered to you just the information you need as soon as it becomes available. That's always been the Holy Grail of the Information Age.
Since the Internet became the Internet, people have tried to come up with better ways to stay informed. One of the latest and most successful is a Web-based system called RSS, which most people understand today to mean Really Simple Syndication (it has meant different things in the past).
For Web users, the chief benefit of RSS is convenience. Instead of periodically going to websites and blogs of interest to find out what's new, you can direct that new information for automatic delivery to you.
This makes it less time-consuming to keep up.
For website owners, RSS lets you provide people with another means of obtaining your content. If you don't provide RSS feeds, some visitors may opt for similar sites that do. This applies to any business site, news site, personal blog or other destination with frequently changing information.
You subscribe to RSS feeds through an RSS Web service or RSS reader. The most popular RSS Web service today is Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), a free service that lets you not only subscribe to RSS feeds that originate elsewhere but also publish your own. Mark Fletcher founded the company and he was the brains behind ONElist, which eventually became Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com), the popular e-mail-based discussion group service.
You can also access RSS feeds from your desktop. RSS integrates itself into Mozilla Firefox (www.mozilla.com/firefox), the second most popular Web browser behind Microsoft Internet Explorer. You can access RSS feeds using Microsoft Internet Explorer with add-on products such as the free Dogpile Search Tool (www.dogpile.com). NewsGator (www.newsgator.com) is a heavier-duty commercial program that can, among other things, harness RSS to help companies keep track of their competitors.
Other free ways to tap into RSS are Google's Gmail and the latest version of Yahoo Mail. RSS is also built into Tiger, Apple's most recent operating system.
You can also use RSS for podcasting, the delivery of audio and video files of your choice to mobile devices such as Apple's popular iPod.
RSS is bound to become even more mainstream in the future. The upcoming Microsoft Outlook 2007 has RSS integration — according to the beta version, RSS feeds appear as folders in your mailbox. The next version of Microsoft Windows will also have RSS built into it.
A competing technology is Atom, with some services and products supporting both RSS and Atom.
RSS, as its name suggests, is fairly simple. On Web pages, RSS (or Atom) Web feeds are typically indicated with an orange square marked with radio waves, the letters RSS or XML (RSS is based on the XML page markup language), or the word “Subscribe.” After subscribing, when you click on a headline or summary that's of interest, the article or post will be delivered to you.
Compared with e-mail newsletters, which you receive into your e-mail in-box once a day, RSS lets you keep up with new developments virtually as they happen. More sites provide RSS feeds than newsletters. Some sites provide RSS feeds for discussions, letting you subscribe to a feed not only for the site's articles but also for comments you can post in response.
Compared with PointCast, the first popular “push” service that was all the vogue 10 years ago, RSS doesn't slow down your PC and tie up corporate networks with headlines and ads. You control when you want the information you request delivered to you, whether every few minutes, hours or days.
RSS works as well on slower dial-up connections as on high-speed broadband ones.
There are nearly as many ways to create RSS feeds with your site as to subscribe to them, from free on up. As just one example, RSS DreamFeeder (www.rnsoft.com/products/rssdreafeeder) integrates into Adobe Dreamweaver (www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver), the popular high-end Web development software.
On the downside, as a clipping service for the Web, RSS can contribute to the problem of information overload. If you sign up for more and more feeds, you may wind up feeling barraged by data. The solution is to “mark all as read” without reading or unsubscribe to feeds that you're repeatedly unable to get to.
RSS may not be worth checking out if you don't follow any websites closely. But if you do, it can be an efficient way to track what's new at those sites and new information in general about subjects you're following.