Eben Townes

May 31, 2004 (Computerworld) —
For several years, my morning information drill has gone something like this: turn on the monitor, then quickly check my e-mail to see if there’s anything that needs immediate attention. That out of the way, it’s time to fire up the Web browser and check those URLs that I go to every day. Some are news sites, some are technical, others are discussion forums related to current projects, and some reflect my interests.

If I’m busy and don’t get to visit every site—or perhaps none at all for several days—then I’m likely to get so far behind that I can’t usefully catch up and have to reconcile myself to perhaps having missed something important.
This is a routine familiar to many knowledge workers. If you’re lucky, you may have only a half-dozen such sites to check each morning. Or you might have to look at 40 or 50, depending on the work you’re doing. It’s a time-consuming, if important, chore, and even bookmarks, favorites or tabbed browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox) don’t speed up the process much. You still have to go to each page, load it, remember how it’s formatted and find where you were the last time. There has to be a better way.
The solution is an interesting notion called RSS, which is an outgrowth of work done at Netscape Communications Corp., culminating in 1999’s My.Netscape.com. (What does RSS stand for? That’s a simple question with several different answers. See sidebar below.) RSS is an XML-based format originally designed for sharing headlines and other Web content. It allows computers to automatically fetch and understand the information users want, to track and personalize lists they’re interested in.
While HTML is designed to present information directly to users, RSS is an automation mechanism for computers to communicate with one another. RSS feeds can let you know if a site has been updated recently.
RSS forms an important underlying technology for many weblogs and portals such as My Yahoo. Commercial sites noticed how RSS turbocharged the distribution of content, and many news sites, including those of The New York Times, the BBC, CNN and Computerworld (see Computerworld’s RSS feed lineup), have created RSS feeds to increase the visibility of their content. RSS solves many of the problems webmasters face, such as increasing site traffic and the difficulty of gathering and distributing news. RSS can also serve as the basis for distributing other types of content.
How RSS Works
RSS starts with an original Web site that has content available. The Web site creates an RSS feed, sometimes called a channel, that’s available just like any other resource or file on the Web server. The site registers this feed in the form of an RSS document, with a directory of RSS publishers.

Once an RSS feed is available on the Web, any computer can regularly fetch it. The most common type of program to do this is called an aggregator, or news reader. Such programs enable users to collect information from many different sources of their own selection with a single, automated application that checks RSS feeds regularly and highlights new material.