BOOT CAMP BOOT CAMP 299 (04/11/03)
You may not have heard of RSS or XML yet but I suspect you
soon will, so this week we’re going to try and get ahead of the game with the
low down on an up and coming Internet tool that could have a big impact on the
way you access information on the web. Unfortunately, as with most new
developments it is riddled with acronyms and jargon, and it’s all still a bit
teccy, but stick with us, it should be worth it.
Officially RSS doesn’t stand for anything, though it has been
dubbed ‘Really Simple Syndication’, and ‘Rich Site Summary’. RSS is actually a
set of technical standards for sending information over the Internet and RSS
data is prepared using Extensible Markup Language or ‘XML’ text format, but that
probably doesn’t tell you very much either, so we’d better start at the
As you know the Internet is an incredible source of
information and if you’re a regular surfer you probably subscribe to newsletters
or regularly visit a number of web sites, maybe for news, financial reports or
for updates on the latest developments and announcements in your particular
fields of interest. You may be a ‘blogger’, or simply enjoy checking
manufacturer’s web sites for details of products launches. However you use the
Internet, if you routinely visit more than two or three websites or read more
than one or two newsletters every day then all that clicking can become
time-consuming and you run the risk of information overload; there’s simply too
much to take in and eventually you’ll either loose interest, or miss out on
This is where RSS comes in; it’s a system whereby ‘dynamic’
web sites that carry frequently updated information generate a separate ‘feed’
comprising just the ‘headlines’, and important stories.
To take advantage of RSS you’ll need a piece of software
called a ‘Client’ or ‘Aggregator’, which monitors the sites and services you’ve
expressed an interest in, alerting you when there is new content to be viewed.
Some browsers, notably Netscape, have rudimentaty RSS facilities but in general
it’s quicker and easier to use a separate program.
It all sounds a bit complicated but in practice it is very
simple and instead of wading through all those newsletters or visiting web sites
you just open your RSS Client and scan the headlines from your chosen sites. If
something catches your attention click on the link and the full story is
displayed. This way you can monitor dozens of web sites from one convenient
browser type window, and customise it so that it only displays material and
content that you are specifically interested in.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many web sites have RSS
feeds but it’s already in excess of 50,000, with scores of new ones joining
every day. It’s off to a good start with many high profile news and information
providers, like the BBC, Yahoo, Virgin, and several national newspapers
participating, and before you ask, The Daily Telegraph has been operating a
headline syndication system for some time, using a propietary systemcalled ‘DAG’
but there is an RSS feed for the Connected section (more details in a moment),
so you can keep tabs on the technology headlines.
Enough of the theory, it’s time to have a go, so begin by
downloading an RSS Client. There are lots to choose from but I suggest you start
with one of the freeware offerings.
My current favourite is FeedDemon, which is in the final
stages of development but the ‘beta’ release appears to be relatively stable and
free of bugs. It’s well presented, easy to use, and comes ready configured with
a number of RSS feeds, so you can get a feel for it straight away. The download
is 2.4Mb and it can be found at: http://www.bradsoft.com/.
Two other freeware programs worth investigating are
and BlogExpress (http://blogexpress.com/),
which are both fairly basic but very easy to setup and use.
Configuring a RSS client is normally fairly straightforward.
There are a couple of methods. Web sites with an RSS feeds sometimes have a
small yellow ‘XML’ logo on the home page, this is feed’s web address or URL,
some RSS Clients will pick it up if they’re open and running whilst you are
browsing; on others the address has top be copied into the Client program by
right clicking on the logo and selecting Copy Shortcut. Open the client program
and right-click to Paste the URL into the Address box.
The alternative method is to look for the RSS address for a
site you are interested in on a referral web site, like Syndic8 (http://www.syndic8.com/).
This is one of a number of on-line directories, listing tens of thousands of RSS
feeds, categorised alphabetically and by subject. If the site has an RSS feed
the address will be contained in a XML button next to the listing.
So what’s the catch? Well, RSS is a relatively new idea so
not all web sites support the system and there’s still some confusion over
standards and formats, though that is largely taken care of by the latest
generation of client programs but that’s all to be expected at this very early
stage of the game and if it takes off – as seems likely -- then it will quickly
become more user-friendly and just another useful web enhancement.
Next week – Spam!
version of a program or application, made available to testers and volunteers on
an at-their-own-risk basis, to help identify any last remaining bugs, glitches
Short for Weblog, a sort of on-line diary containing
frequently updated content, from personal thoughts and insights to company news
Resource Locator - a standard Internet address
TIP OF THE WEEK
If you’re selling or disposing of an old PC you really should
wipe the hard disc drive to remove any personal files and software. The DOS
Format utility is a good start but data can still be recovered. A better
solution is this little freeware utility, which can be run from a floppy disc.
Active@KillDisc completely erases the data on hard discs and floppies, and then
overwrites with meaningless data, just to make sure. It runs on all versions of
Windows, the download is only 214kb and it can be found at: http://www.killdisk.com/features.htm