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What is RSS/XML/Atom/Syndication?

May 19, 2004

The little orange buttons that are starting to litter the web have no doubt caused mass confusion. What are they good for? Why are they there? And why don’t they work?

While I and others are starting to look into suggestions for developers to alleviate this design flaw, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about what this technology potentially means to you, the user. (If you already know what RSS stands for, this article won’t tell you anything new, but feel free to reference when you need to explain syndication.)

RSS/XML/Atom are technologies, but syndication is a process. RSS and Atom are two flavours of what is more or less the same thing: a ‘feed’ which is a wrapper for pieces of regularly and sequentially-updated content, be they news articles, weblog posts, a series of photographs, and more. For the purposes of this article, consider the terms interchangable. XML is the base technology both are built on, but that’s almost totally irrelevant; the orange buttons are mislabelled, and should read ‘RSS’ or ‘Atom’ instead. Strange, but true.

Syndication is the process of using RSS/Atom for automated updates, another way of getting the information you want. You no doubt have a list of web sites you browse daily for updates, whether they’re stored in your bookmarks or your head. If you find yourself loading 20 or 30 sites a day, and you notice if a few stop updating as frequently, you’ll inevitably stop checking them.

What if there were instead some way to have your list of bookmarks notify you when the sites you read have been updated? You wouldn’t waste time checking those that haven’t. Instead of loading 30 sites a day, you might only need to load 13. Cutting your time in half would enable you to start monitoring more sites, so for the same amount of time you originally invested in checking each site manually, you may just end up end up following twice as many.

Syndication provides the tools to do this. A news reader, or aggregator as they’re also known, is a program or a web site that automatically checks your list of bookmarks (which you only have to set up once) and lets you know what’s new on each site in your list.

It goes beyond simple updates though — the news reader works by pulling in the feeds of your various bookmarks. As we covered above, a feed is a wrapper for content items, so on top of notification, a feed delivers the content that has been updated itself. You may choose to read the new content in the news reader, or you may choose to leave the reader and visit the site. Some authors will only provide summaries of the content, forcing you to visit anyway.

Newsreader screenshot with labels

As an analogy, the news reader acts like a customizable newspaper. You can pull a variety of content from a growing number of sources into one place, to be read however you choose. Sources like major news media outlets (BBC, Reuters, Washington Post) to non-news content providers (Apple’s iTunes Music Store, the Government of Canada, USGS’ World Earthquake updates) to smaller independent voices (BoingBoing, VanEats, Sidesh0w). The only stipulation is that the source must provide a feed; many are.

Beyond day to day use, a particularly nice feature is that you’re able to take your news with you on the go. Have your newsreader grab the latest feeds before you rush to the airport, then check out of the in-flight movie to catch up on the most recent goings-on. Of course the author has to be providing full content for this to work, and some only provide summaries — it’s about 50/50. Leave the summaries unread, and you can come back to them later when you’re connected again. In this regard, news readers also function like temporary bookmarks. Unread items will stay flagged until you’re near a connection or have more time to read them. No more forgetting what it was you wanted to check up on your lunch break, it’ll be there waiting for you.

If this introduction has whet your appetite, the next step is to grab a news reader and start playing. Popular at the moment are FeedDemon for Windows, NetNewsWire for Mac OS X, and Bloglines which is a platform-neutral, web-based news reader.

If you’re interested in more information about the mechanics of it, much more technical overviews are available, complete with RSS/Atom specs to help you implement them in your own work if you so choose. And of course, as syndication spreads across the net, more and more choices of content are available. Soon you’ll have a whole new problem on your hands: how many feeds are too many?