27 September 2009

A Really Simple Explanation of Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

by Dick Eastman

Editor's Note: The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at http://www.eogn.com.

The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee when he launched the first web site on 6 August 1991. That web site described a new protocol that Berners-Lee had invented, called "HyperText Transfer Protocol," or http. Tim Berners-Lee's invention has become very popular in the eighteen years since that modest beginning!

How info-glut wastes valuable time

Of course, the World Wide Web has encountered various problems and "growing pains" in the past eighteen years. One of the biggest problems, in my mind, is simply that of popularity. There are millions of web sites available today. I like to check frequently with a rather large number of web sites to see what has been added recently. However, I find that checking each web site by using the 1991 technology that uses http protocol is time-consuming. Going out to each site and manually scanning to see what is new can consume quite a bit of time, especially if you want to check several hundred web sites!

Luckily, there is a simple solution: skip the http and use RSS instead.


The newer, easier, and faster way

Instead of you going out, make the new info come to you. In effect, your computer can retrieve all the new information and store that information on your hard drive.

The new RSS (Really Simple Syndication) protocol simply adds a method of automation: instead of performing repetitive tasks yourself, let your computer do them. After all, computers are really good at performing repetitive tasks.

In the old-fashioned http method, you (the user) open a web browser and go out to various web sites of interest and retrieve information. That process works well but is really slow. Checking a few hundred web sites might require hours.

In the newer method of using RSS protocol, your computer (or web program) will go out to the Web and retrieve any new information on web sites that you have specified in a list. You manually create the list, but the computer does the repetitive checking and retrieving of new information. The new information is then stored on the computer's hard drive, waiting for you to read it. Since the information is already stored for you, there is no waiting for web pages to display. Reading new articles that have been stored on a local hard drive is as fast or perhaps faster than reading new e-mail messages in an e-mail program.

Speed is the key here. In fact, if you connect to the Internet via a dial-up connection, you need RSS! However, even users of the highest speed fiber optic connections will find RSS to be pleasantly faster than retrieving information in the old-fashioned way. You can now check hundreds of web sites for newly-added information within a very few minutes, not hours.

What you need: a reader and subscriptions

First, you need an RSS reader. There are many to choose from for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Palm, SmartPhone, and Apple iPhone operating systems. Most of them are available free of charge; a few with advanced features cost a few dollars. I'd suggest that you start with a free RSS reader and use that until you become experienced enough to understand the advantages of a commercial reader. I suspect that most users never upgrade; they keep using their free RSS readers for years.

An RSS reader might be a bit of software that you install on a local computer or it might be software that runs on a distant web server in the best "cloud computing" manner. Free web-based RSS readers are available at Google.com (www.google.com/reader/), Newsgator (www.newsgator.com/individuals/newsGatoronline/default.aspx), Bloglines (www.bloglines.com/), and many others.

Installing an RSS reader in your own computer usually results in faster operation, especially for people who do not have high-speed internet service. Hundreds of such newsreaders are available. However, if you are new to RSS, I would suggest that you start with one of the following:
You can easily switch to a different RSS reader at a later date if you wish to. Your list of monitored web sites can be exported as an OPML file and then imported into any other modern RSS reader; you won't have to manually create your list again.

Next, you need to “subscribe” to the web sites you wish to monitor. In this step you find web sites that offer information in RSS format. Luckily, millions of web sites do just that today. Most major news services, stock market information services, weather forecasts, sports reports, and much more are available as RSS feeds. I even monitor my checkbook entries via an online RSS feed!

In addition, almost all blogs offer RSS feeds. One estimate claims there are more than 50 million blogs, and that the number is increasing rapidly.

My EOGN web site has offered RSS feeds for more than five years, and there are many other genealogy web sites that also offer RSS feeds.

Subscribing means creating a list of sites you are interested in monitoring. The exact process will vary from one RSS reader to another, so you will need to read the program's documentation to find the exact steps for creating that list in the RSS reader you selected. With most RSS readers, you use a normal web browser to first find a web site of interest, then switch to the RSS reader and give it a command to "check this site often." In many cases, you can simply enter the URL for a favorite web site in a subscription search box. If that site offers an RSS feed, it will automatically be added to your list.

Most RSS readers check for updates at least daily; most can check even more often than that. Should you wish to, most RSS readers will even check hourly.

Use your computer for automation

Instead of manually going out to find new information, you can make that info come to you. In effect, your computer retrieves all the new information and stores that information on your hard drive or on the hard drive of a single web server. The end result is simpler, easier, and much faster operation.

New articles will start arriving in your RSS reader without any action on your part.

I can say two things about RSS readers: they simplify your life, and they are almost as addictive as genealogy!