RSS and Atom News Feeds

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2631, , as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 7-9) and their website.

Nowadays, just about everyone with Internet access has devoted a significant amount of time to exploring the Web and discovering what it can offer. If you are typical of such Internet users, then this exploration has resulted in a growing list of favorite websites, typically recorded as bookmarks within your Web browser.

As the list of bookmarked sites grows, and as you discover new ways of utilizing the wealth of information available — for both personal and professional profit — it takes an increasing amount of time simply to check all of those bookmarked websites, in order to see all of the changes to each site since your last visit. It also requires more time to filter out content in which you have no interest.

If only there were a way to automate this process — to make your computer, or someone else's, do the grunt work of checking all those websites for any unread information, and bringing it all together just for you. Furthermore, this news aggregation process would be even more powerful if you could create filters that specify which sites to check, how frequently to check them, which topics to flag as being most important, and which topics to completely filter out.

Fortunately, there are desktop applications and websites — called news "aggregators" — that will do exactly this. In conjunction with these news readers, a growing number of websites are publishing their content in formats — called "news feeds" — that can be read by these aggregators.

Really Short Summary

RSS is generally considered to an acronym for "Really Simple Syndication". It is a standard format for publishing online news, in what is referred to as an "RSS feed". By utilizing an agreed-upon format for the information, it is much easier for that information to be digested by computer programs and websites known as "RSS readers".

These RSS readers are frequently referred to as aggregators, because they are capable of reading multiple news feeds, and aggregating their contents into a single feed. The user of such an aggregator is able to subscribe to one or more RSS feeds, conveniently browse their contents in just one place, and configure her aggregator so that it highlights topics that she may be especially interested in, or exclude material of no interest.

Let's take a few examples of websites that provide RSS feeds for the latest high-tech developments in the world: CNET News, Digg Technology, and Slashdot. You could visit each site individually, checking for the latest news, every day (or every few minutes, depending upon how bored you are at work). But it would be more efficient to use an aggregator to subscribe to the RSS feeds provided by the sites, and let the aggregator periodically check those sites for any updates.

RSS aggregators come in two varieties: desktop applications and websites. In the former category, solid choices include AmphetaDesk, FeedDemon, FeedReader, and RSSOwl. In the latter category, Bloglines is a favorite.

The Atomic Age

RSS is not the only news feed game in town. Atom is an alternative that may be in second place in terms of popularity, but is first-rate in the minds of techies who appreciate its advantages over RSS.

Among those advantages is Atom's much greater flexibility as to the types of content that it supports. RSS news feeds can contain only plain text and escaped HTML (i.e., safer HTML). Atom does too, but goes far beyond, with support for XHTML, XML, Base64-encoded binary, and references to external multimedia content.

An RSS feed can specify the language used for the entire feed, while Atom allows different languages to be specified for different portions of its feed. Lastly, Atom is more consistent with XML, which is a very flexible and increasingly popular technical standard for formatting data online.

If you are interested in using a desktop application for reading Atom feeds, there are a number of programs you can choose from, including NewzCrawler and RSS Bandit. Both of them support the Atom format, as well as RSS. So if you want to have maximum flexibility for news feed formats, then either one of these two programs could be a better choice than any of the aforesaid RSS-only programs.

Icon Read This

But how can you tell if a website is offering content in RSS or Atom format? On the site's home page, look for a small orange rectangular icon that reads "RSS", or "XML", or something similar. Such an icon is oftentimes located at the bottom of the home page or near the search field for the site. A commonly-used icon is shown below.

RSS feed icon
Figure 1. RSS feed icon.

The two wave-like curves streaming outwards may suggest to some viewers the broadcast nature of RSS.

Web browsers offer visual clues as to whether an RSS feed is offered by the website currently being viewed in the browser. For instance, Firefox will display, in its address field, an orange RSS icon similar to the one shown above. A mouse click on the icon, with a subsequent click on an "OK" button, is all it takes to add that particular site's news feed to your bookmarks.

As well as providing visual clues to the availability of news feeds, Web browsers are also increasing their built-in support for RSS. In terms of Microsoft's operating system and browser, both Windows Vista and Internet Explorer version 7, provide much better embedded support for RSS than have previous versions of those products.

Regardless of whether you prefer the RSS or Atom format (actually, whether your favorite websites do), or if you wish to read your news feeds in a desktop application or on a dedicated news feed site, you will most likely discover the many advantages to using aggregators for bringing online news together, so you don't have to go surfing the Web every time you would like to see what's happening in the world — unless of course you miss seeing all those online advertisements.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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