From being a sluggish, monster resource hog in its early days, RSS feed readers are today changing the way many people browse.
Short for Really Simple Syndication (or Rich Site Summary), an RSS reader allows users to aggregate content from different Web sites into a single window on their desktop. With an RSS reader, you can distill a larger volume of information, spread over several sites, much faster than if you visited each of them individually.
Says Kevin Burton, developer of NewsMonster, a feed reader that can be used with a Mozilla browser: "With an aggregator I can monitor a few hundred sites and stay updated when they publish new articles without spending hours going to all of them."
David Peckham, developer of NewsDesk (one of the better feed readers based on Microsoft's .Net framework), says that staying informed is now effortless. Each time you browse a Web page, you have to wait while it loads. This could be several seconds to a few minutes, since most pages use dynamic and graphic content liberally.
Setting it up
For a start, you will need to download a newsreader (most of them offer their plain vanilla versions free) that is compatible with your browser. Once you have set it up on your computer, start subscribing to RSS feeds that you want. Many sites like BBC, ESPN, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, besides several Web logs, provide free RSS feeds.
Now, the aggregator kicks into action and pulls headlines and summaries of all the latest content from the sites you have subscribed to and displays them to you. Just click on any link that interests you, and the relevant article will open up in a browser window.
RSS feed readers run on software that reads an Extensible Markup Language (XML) file written in the RSS format (example: RSS 1.0 or RSS 2.0) containing content that a site wants to syndicate. The reader presents the information in the feeds that you subscribe to in a quick and readable manner.
The current scenario
Of late, there has been an explosion in the number of RSS feed readers and each has a different approach towards achieving the primary task of aggregating and displaying feeds.
While the commercial Newsgator fits neatly into Microsoft Outlook as a plug-in, NewsMonster hops on to the Mozilla platform as a sidebar item. NewsDesk takes the stand-alone application approach based on the Microsoft .Net framework, enabling it to seamlessly integrate the Internet Explorer browser within itself.
Since it first appeared in 1997, the development of the specification and the software that reads it, has been turbulent, even at the best of times. As a result, the definition of an ideal RSS reader is constantly changing. As things stand now, a good RSS feed reader should have the following features as a minimum:
1) RSS auto-discovery: For your Newsreader to fetch any content, you will have to specify the location of the RSS feed itself. But, if your Newsreader is capable of RSS auto-discovery, it will find the feed even if you specify an HTML page. It does this by reading a tag on the HTML page that points to the RSS feed. It might not always work, since many sites that do provide RSS feeds don't incorporate the tag in their HTML pages.
2) Export/import OPML: If your newsreader allows you to save your subscription list in OPML format, exporting or importing this list when you switch applications or platforms becomes a breeze.
3) Background processing: A good feed reader must chug away in the background, polling a user's subscription list for fresh content at set intervals, without user intervention.
4) Offline caching: The reader should be able to save new content from a user's list of subscribed sites to a local computer for viewing offline. Since it can be a bandwidth hog, it should ideally be set as inactive by default.
The feed reader that you finally choose depends on the features that you require. Burton makes a very strong case for NewsMonster by citing its cross-platform nature: "Having the browser integrated into your Web and email is very compelling. For example I can read an RSS article and forward it to a friend with Mozilla Mail." He also argues that its ability to integrate new features quickly is a big advantage.
If one has the stomach (and the bandwidth) for the 20 MB download of the Microsoft .Net framework, NewsDesk implements most of the necessary tasks without much fuss.
Most entry-level users would find integration to Newsisfree, a service that makes convenient the task of finding and adding the feeds, considerably easy. "You can use the Add Channels Wizard to effortlessly search more than 5,700 channels in 25 languages," says Peckham.
The RSS specification has had a troubled past and currently has two versions, 1.0 and 2.0. The public and often acrimonious disagreements among the groups that develop the versions threaten to slow down the development or even derail it, making life considerably difficult for developers of the feed reader software.
Taking an optimistic view of things Burton says, "There is still some discussion that needs to happen but this is natural and healthy and I want to see it carried forward." Peckham says it would all ultimately stabilise around features most wanted by a majority of users.
A problem Indian users might encounter is that most popular Indian sites, news-based or otherwise, do not have an RSS feed. They will have to depend on external aggregators like Newsisfree or Moreover.
This problem is compounded by the refusal of some popular blogging sites to provide an RSS feed as a standard feature. "No weblog at Blogspot has an RSS feed and services like RSSify are a strain on server resources," says Kiran Jonnalagadda, one of the rare breed of people in India who use NetNewsWire, a feed reader that runs on Apple's OS X.
But these niggles notwithstanding, RSS feed readers are a valuable tool to manage the information overload on the Internet.