Opinion: RSS starting to catch on

I've been looking at the future of information, and part of it is spelled R-S-S. I'm talking about a data format that has been around for a few years but is only now getting the attention it deserves.

Depending on who's talking, RSS stands for RDF Site Summary (RDF in turn stands for Resource Description Framework), Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. It's the last of those that really describes it.

Why should IT care? Because people will discover, sooner or later, that this format can save time and money -- and may be one of tomorrow's keys to communications.

RSS is an XML format used to distribute content via a self-syndication method. In other words, it helps you offer and receive the information you want in a convenient way. Some readers who are getting "RSS feeds" about their favorite topics already know about this. But I'm willing to bet that most people are still unfamiliar with the technology.

The reason RSS has become so useful stems from the growth in popularity of weblogs, the online journals that have surged into prominence in recent years. Almost all weblog-creation software automatically creates an XML file based on weblog postings, in which key elements of the postings, such as titles and some or all of the text, are saved in RSS format.

That led to the creation of so-called aggregators, or newsreaders -- not the Usenet newsgroup readers of lore, but client applications that pull in the RSS feeds from various weblogs. This has given users the ability to aggregate information from a variety of sources into a single application, freeing them from having to surf to many sites. Newsreaders check RSS files regularly and highlight new material.

Other content creators noticed what was happening with weblogs and started creating RSS feeds of their own material. For example, the British Broadcasting Corp. Web operation has dozens of RSS feeds on a wide range of material. You can even get a Harry Potter news feed from the BBC.

The power of RSS has to be experienced to be understood. My newsreader, called NetNewsWire (for Mac OS X), collects news, weblog items and even the latest information on new items that are being offered for sale on Amazon.com. I can quickly check the headlines, and sometimes much more, from dozens of Web pages without visiting them. This is the easiest way to gather such information.

IT folks should be thinking about applying these techniques to their own businesses. I've long believed that corporate executives and others in senior positions would benefit from writing weblogs, sharing their thoughts and observations internally and externally in less formal ways than those absurd, turgid public relations sites allow. And rank-and-file employees could keep one another informed more efficiently by using weblogs. Passing around useful information via RSS feeds would only enhance the process.

The best reason so far to adopt RSS in a big way is its effect on the technology that we all once loved but is now so polluted: e-mail. Sending marketing messages and newsletters via e-mail has become a fool's errand; the obvious work-around is RSS. I'd much prefer to get public relations materials this way.

About the only thing standing between RSS and a major breakthrough is a standards battle. Whatever the outcome, users must insist that the technology that emerges is flexible enough to support innovation -- and it must be kept out of the hands of corporate monopolists and would-be monopolists.

It'll be obvious, sooner or later, that RSS is a time- and money-saver. The sooner IT discovers this, the better.

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