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Sunday, July 24, 2005

What Is RSS

A Guide to Using RSS,
Which Helps You Scan
Vast Array of Web Sites

If you read a dozen or more online news sites every day, managing them all
can be difficult.

In the most popular Web browser, Microsoft's Internet
Explorer, you have to laboriously open them one at a time. You can open each
in a separate window, but the windows pile up in the task bar at the bottom
of the screen, making a visual mess that is hard to navigate.

One good solution is to use a more modern browser with a feature called
tabbed browsing. These browsers -- such as Firefox for Windows PCs and Apple
Computer's Macintosh models; or Apple's own Safari browser for the Mac --
allow you to open many pages simultaneously, in the same window. Each page
is marked by a file-folder-style tab, and you can switch among them by just
clicking on the tabs.

But even tabbed browsers have a limit. If you try to open dozens, or scores,
of Web pages at once, the tabs either become too small to show what Web site
they represent, or they slide off the screen and can't be easily seen.

So power users have been employing a system called RSS that allows them to
quickly scan large numbers of newsy, frequently updated Web sites. RSS,
which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a kind of computer code that
Web site owners can add to their sites to make them easier to scan quickly.

When interpreted by special RSS-savvy software programs called "news
readers" or "news aggregators," the RSS code allows these programs to
display only the headlines and short summaries of these news sites' latest
articles. This is called an "RSS feed." Users can "subscribe" to various
feeds and quickly scan the headlines and summaries. Then, if they so choose,
they can click on a link to read the entire article.

Some RSS addicts regularly scan hundreds of such feeds each day. The
news-reader software keeps scooping up the freshest headlines from the RSS
feeds, and signals when new headlines are available.

RSS, and a competing syndication system called Atom, were first used by
people who write Web logs, or blogs -- newsy, diary-type Web sites where
entries are added in sequence. Later, the Web sites of traditional news
organizations added RSS feeds.

For awhile, the use of these feeds was mainly the province of techies. The
reader software you needed to use them wasn't well known to mainstream Web
surfers, and the process of subscribing to a feed involved clicking on an
orange button on the site unhelpfully labeled "XML," which is the name of
the computer language in which the RSS code is written. If you clicked on
these buttons in a standard Web browser, all you saw was a page of

Now, however, RSS feeds are going mainstream. Both the Firefox and Safari
browsers have built-in, easy-to-use RSS readers. There also are some add-in
news readers for Internet Explorer, and even for Microsoft's Outlook email

In Firefox, whenever you reach a Web page with an RSS feed, an orange icon
appears at the lower right of the screen. If you click on the icon, Firefox
lets you add the feed to your browser as if it were a bookmark. But these
bookmarks are "live." They are constantly receiving new headlines from the
feed. When you click on them, a drop-down list of the freshest headlines
appears. Click on the headline, and the story appears.

In the latest version of the Safari browser, called Safari RSS, Apple has
gone even further. When Safari reaches a page with an RSS feed, an icon
labeled "RSS" appears next to the Web address at the top of the screen. If
you click on it, you can add the feed as if it were a bookmark, as in
Firefox. But Safari can instantly generate a beautifully laid-out special
Web page that displays all the headlines and summaries from one, or even
all, of your RSS feeds.

There also are some products, such as Feed Scout (
1), that add a special toolbar to Internet
Explorer, giving that aging browser the ability to act as an RSS reader.

Of course, you also can use a stand-alone news reader. These contain many
more features than the browsers do for managing and organizing feeds.

Examples of news readers for Windows include FeedDemon and Awasu. On the
Mac, my favorite is NetNewsWire. All these readers, and many others, are
available for download at 2.

Some other products, notably NewsGator, take a different approach. They add
RSS capabilities to email programs, and treat RSS headlines and summaries
like email. NewsGator, also available at, effectively turns
Microsoft Outlook into a news reader.

Some news readers don't require any software at all. They are simply Web
sites that allow you to subscribe to, and search, RSS feeds. One is called
BlogLines, at 3. Another is
PubSub, at 4. Feedster, at 5, is a search engine for RSS
feeds. It specializes in custom RSS feeds comprised of items it finds on
specific topics you search for.

Whichever approach you choose, if you are a news-oriented Web surfer who
wants the latest stuff from a broad range of sources, RSS can be a great