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Why web developers will need to know their RSS

What is it?

RSS is a lightweight XML format, used to standardise news and other material so that updates on website content can be sent to end-users who have requested them. RSS also enables content to be syndicated to other websites.

From the user’s point of view, RSS has been described as a “content personalisation tool”. Readers and aggregators in client software such as browsers check the “feeds” from the originating websites and display anything new.

Effectively a mini-database of headlines and other summaries of new content, RSS is also being explored as a mechanism for content distribution services, which Microsoft’s Simple List Extensions will support. Money is being invested in medical and financial applications.

RSS has had two tipping points in its history. The first was when the New York Times adopted it to provide news feeds, rapidly followed by other media organisations, including CNN and the BBC. The second was Microsoft’s decision to include it in Internet Explorer 7. 

A 2005 survey by Nielsen/Netratings found that even among tech-savvy blog users, about 66% had never heard of RSS. To date, only about 5% of people use RSS to get news and information delivered to them. With Internet Explorer 7, RSS will hit the mainstream.

This carries the usual downsides: the Microsoft implementation is good enough, rather than good, and Microsoft has created its own extensions which, though covered by Creative Commons licensing, are likely to skew future development in a Windows-centric direction.

Where is it used?

By newspapers, broadcasters and other media companies, Google and Yahoo, also bloggers.

Where did it originate?

RSS had proprietary forebears, such as Apple’s Meta Content Framework and Microsoft’s Channel Definition Format, but the true line grew out of a project abandoned by Netscape. Rich Site Summary was cast adrift at version 0.91, just as the internet’s early adopters had started to take an interest. It was picked up by UserLand, a supplier of web authoring products.

However, a breakaway faction had already created RSS 1.0 (standing for RDF Site Summary), so when UserLand had a product to release, this had to be called RSS 2.0 – which sounds like a successor to RSS 1.0, but isn’t; in this case it stands for Really Simple Syndication. Since 2003, the RSS 2.0 specification has been owned by the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

What makes it special?

RSS provides a way of promoting websites without costly advertising and can be used to set up ad-hoc content sharing partnerships.

How difficult is it to master?

RSS is straightforward for those with a basic grasp of XML and/or HTML/XHTML. Most tutorials involve just a few hours’ work.

What systems does it run on?

Internet Explorer 7, Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and the Opera browser can all handle web feeds. IBM has included RSS capability in the latest releases of Lotus Notes and Domino. Being “lightweight”, RSS is ideal for portable devices such as PDAs and mobile phones.

What is coming up?

Microsoft is building RSS technologies into Longhorn, its next-generation server operating system.


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