BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2003

  

 

BOOT CAMP BOOT CAMP 299 (04/11/03)

 

RSS

 

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 beginning.

 

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 something important.

 

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 SharpReader (http://www.sharpreader.net/) 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!

 

JARGON FILTER

 

BETA

Pre-release 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 and conflicts

 

BLOG

Short for Weblog, a sort of on-line diary containing frequently updated content, from personal thoughts and insights to company news and information

 

URL

Uniform 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

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