What is it?
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) or, less commonly, Rich Site Summary, is an integral part of Microsoft's forthcoming Internet Explorer 7 web browser and Windows Vista operating system, but it is also widely used for aggregating updates to blogs and news sites. IBM calls it "an XML-based format for syndicated content".
According to the RSS 3.0 homepage, "It is a way to broadcast online content's meta data via the internet, thus letting webmasters inform users who read the RSS feed of changes in their site (updates, news, new links etc) or inform applications of changes in a service."
It has also been called "a mini-database containing headlines and descriptions of what is new on your site". A contributor to O'Reilly.com has described RSS as "the most widely deployed web service across the internet".
Where did it originate?
RSS began as a Netscape project to create a format for building portals for news sites. The first version, 0.9, was thought to be unnecessarily complex. Version 0.91 was simpler, but Netscape dropped it and it was taken on by UserLand Software. A breakaway group developed a version based on RDF (Resource Description Framework), called RSS 1.0. However, the true successor to RSS 0.9x was RSS 2.0.
What is it for?
From the content originator's point of view, it is "a free-and-easy way to promote a site and its content without the need to advertise or create complicated content sharing partnerships".
What makes it special?
Microsoft has said it will rationalise and extend RSS to make it more effective, easier to use and suitable for a wider range of applications by, for example, adding support for ordered lists.
How difficult is it to master?
RSS is straightforward for those who already know XML. You can use a simple text editor, or a variety of tools, some of them available free.
Where is it used?
There is a long way to go before RSS becomes universal. Research firm Nielsen//NetRatings found that just 11% of blog readers use RSS to sort through new content. Only 5% use feed aggregation software, and 6% use a feed aggregating website to monitor RSS feeds from blogs. Some 23% understood RSS but did not use it, and 66 % either did not understand the technology or had never heard of it.
However, the Nielsen report said, "RSS feeds deliver relevant posts quickly, in a customisable, easy to manage format. These types of services provide marketers with an additional avenue to tap a captive audience for time-critical offers. Since the customers themselves pick the content they will receive, advertisers are able to deliver their message within a context they know will engage their target audience."
What is coming up?
Microsoft has pledged to support all forms of RSS in Internet Explorer 7 and the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, including the 0.9x standards, which are still widely used, as well as RSS 1.0 and 2.0. Beta versions of Internet Explorer 7 and Vista are available on Microsoft's website. Details of RSS 3.0, the proposed successor to RSS 2.0, can be found at
Few adverts request RSS skills as yet, but there is huge potential and it will become a required skill for Microsoft support and development.
You will find plenty of free web tutorials, but make sure you get the right version. Try, for example, "RSS - a primer for publishers and content providers", which includes real-life examples from the BBC.
This was first published in September 2005