What is RSS and do I need it? 

from the January 2006 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

0601rssreader.jpg (31223 bytes)RSS is another one of those great Internet things that you probably don't yet realise you need. It's a very useful service that is becoming more and more prominent, and will one day be quite commonplace. It's easy to understand and use, and there are plenty of free RSS readers around that you can download in a short amount of time.

An RSS reader looks and works a little bit like an e-mail or usenet program. It connects to various sites for you (you specify them) and downloads headlines. All you have to do is click the headlines and the story will load into the reader from the web site in question. So the usefulness of RSS is mainly to do with time-saving and convenience. You don't have to surf to all the news or blog web sites you normally visit, and you can easily see when a site has been updated with a new article or story.

All these tech-related acronyms sound complicated, but RSS is really simple in concept. In fact, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary, or RDF Site Summary, or a variation on one of those. But who really cares what it stands for (really smelly squid?). The important thing is what it does.

Making RSS work

Not all news sites have an RSS feed, but one that does is said to be "syndicated". You can tell an RSS capable site because it will usually have a button on it that looks something like 0601rss.jpg (902 bytes) or 0601xml.jpg (1010 bytes). It can vary because RSS is a type of XML, but you don't need to know or care about that. If you see a button like this on a syndicated site, click it to bring up a page that lets you choose what links you want to add to your reader. Sometimes it's as simple as just dragging the orange button into your RSS reader program. Note that sometimes the orange button can be hard to find. Often it's right down the bottom of the page (but not always).

The NZ Herald site, for example, lets you customise to the extent that all headlines, or just headlines about certain things in certain sections appear in your reader. You then select and copy the link, click the Add button (or similar) in your reader, and paste in the link. Your reader will then display your new "feed" on the left. When you click that "feed" all the related headlines will come up on the right hand side, and you can click to read them. Move from feed to feed to select different sets of headlines. The program will automatically update itself, too. It's really that simple!

Getting a reader

Free RSS readers can be downloaded from various sites such as the following:

RSS Reader (pictured above): http://www.rssreader.com/
Amphetadesk - http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk/
Feedreader - http://www.feedreader.com/
Headline Viewer - http://www.headlineviewer.com/
Net Newswire (Mac OS X) - http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/

I haven't tried all of the above, but the various screenshots at each site indicate that they probably all work pretty similarly, and you should be able to intuit your way around them reasonably easily. Of course each will have its own settings that you can fiddle around with so that you can get things just right.

Some Good Syndicated Sites

NZ Herald - http://www.nzherald.co.nz/
The Register - http://www.theregister.co.uk/
The BBC News Page - http://news.bbc.co.uk/
CNN - http://edition.cnn.com/
Computerworld - http://www.computerworld.co.nz/

Next month we'll have a look at ways in which you can access similarly syndicated web pages using Firefox.